Reuters International

BAMAKO (Reuters) - Demonstrators stormed an airport runway in northern Mali on Monday to protest against arrests by French forces of people suspected of links to Islamist militants who operate in the region, local officials and witnesses said.

Security forces fired warning shots and teargas to deter the mostly female protesters in the town of Kidal who also ransacked and set fire to airport facilities, said a local official, witnesses and the U.N. mission in Mali, MINUSMA.

The protests appear to mark a deterioration in relations between foreign forces and the local community in Kidal, a town at the centre of a separatist movement and violence by Islamist militants, some of whom are linked to al Qaeda.

One person died and six were injured, said Ahmoudane Ag Ikmasse, who represents Kidal in the national assembly. Ikmasse said he was in the capital Bamako but was in contact with people in Kidal.

A doctor in Kidal's health centre said two died from gunshot wounds.

It was not clear why the airport was targeted or why women were the main participants in the protest.

The U.N. mission was not immediately able to confirm the death toll and it was not clear how many people were involved in the protests. A French military spokesman declined to comment.

"MINUSMA is contact with the Malian authorities and leaders of local communities as well as those from civil society, aiming to ease tensions and understanding the circumstances of the events," the mission said in a statement.

MINUSMA and French forces have been stationed in northern Mali for about three years since separatists joined jihadists to seize the region from the government in Bamako.

Although France drove jihadists out of key towns in 2013, they have regrouped. In November, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb attacked a luxury hotel in the capital, killing 20 people and demonstrating a reach beyond their base.

Protests targeting MINUSMA broke out once before in January 2015.

(Reporting by Adama Diarra and Tiemoko Diallo; Additional reporting by Marine Pennetier in Dakar; Writing by Makini Brice; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg and)

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