Tuareg, Islamist rebels clash in Gao
Malian Tuareg and Islamist rebel forces are clashing in the town of Gao.
The two groups have had a fractious relationship since seizing the north of Mali three months ago.
Fighting broke out between the Tuareg National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and members of the Al-Qaeda offshoot Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) in at least two suburbs of the northeastern town.
"It is happening not far from the governorate, fighters from the two movements are firing at each other with heavy weapons," said the owner of a petrol station next to the governor's offices.
"We can hear gunfire, the fighters from MUJAO and the MNLA are shooting at each other," said Nina Oumarou, the sister of an official who was killed by armed men on Monday night, provoking violent protests on Tuesday.
She said a group of MUJAO fighters had moved towards the MNLA camp in the town, which was seized by the various rebel groups in late March after a coup d'etat by renegade soldiers in Bamako.
Residents reported the fighting continued into the early afternoon and that both sides had received reinforcements.
The clashes followed Tuesday's protest by residents angry over the death of municipal councillor Idrissa Oumarou, who belongs to the party of Mali's transitional president Dioncounda Traore.
Oumarou was shot dead on Monday and the protesters blamed the rebel groups for his murder.
Armed men on Tuesday fired on the group of demonstrators, leaving at least one dead and a dozen injured.
Witnesses accused the MNLA of the shooting, which the Tuareg movement denied, saying it was "manipulation" on the part of MUJAO.
"The MNLA firmly condemns those who shot at the crowd protesting its discontent in Gao," said Ibrahim Ag Mohamed Assaleh, a leader of the movement.
MUJAO said it had arrested two people for the murder of Oumarou, without identifying them.
The jihadist group is an offshoot of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), both of which are backing the Islamist rebel group Ansar Dine (Defenders of Faith).
The MNLA spearheaded the takeover of the north when the March 22 coup left the country in chaos, and were soon joined by the previously unknown Ansar Dine, which has since taken the upper hand.
Tensions have been high between the two rebel groups, as they both pursue different objectives and ideologies.
While the secular Tuareg want independence for their northern homeland, which they call Azawad. Ansar Dine's main demand is a state where Islamic law is strictly implemented.
Last week a young couple was publicly lashed for having a child out of wedlock, while smokers have also been whipped and women forced to wear veils in the towns of Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal.
Ansar Dine and Tuareg leaders have been holding talks in the Burkina Faso capital with mediator President Blaise Compaore on a way forward for the troubled north.
Compaore's foreign minister, Djibrill Bassole, held talks Wednesday in neighbouring Algeria, the region's top military power.
"Algeria's role in solving the cris in Mali is extremely important," Bassole told the official APS news agency.
Most of AQIM's top leaders are from Algeria.