GAO Mali (Reuters) - Gunfire erupted between the Malian army and Tuareg separatists (MNLA) in the northern city of Kidal on Saturday as the prime minister embarked on a trip there, according to a resident and an MNLA spokesman.
Mali's new Prime Minister Moussa Mara will land shortly in the city for the first time since his appointment last month as he seeks to revive long-delayed peace talks with armed groups seeking autonomy for a region of northern Mali they call Azawad.
Mali, a vast landlocked former French colony of 16 million in West Africa, descended into turmoil when Islamist fighters took advantage of a 2012 Tuareg-led rebellion and seized control of the country's north.
French troops drove back the Islamists last year, elections were held and a U.N. peacekeeping mission is rolling out.
Mara said on his Twitter feed on Saturday he planned to depart for Kidal via the city of Gao.
"This morning the army opened fire on our barracks. They were the first to fire and they aimed at our position and we responded," said MNLA spokesman Attaye Ag Mohamed in Kidal, speaking over occasional bursts of gunfire.
A military source in Kidal who asked not to be named said the army was firing in the air and not at the MNLA site.
"There is not a direct fighting between the two sides, although the situation could evolve," he said.
Kidal resident Assikadaye Ag Waezagane confirmed the gunfire and said that at least 100 pro-independence protestors had gathered at the airport since late on Friday and at one point occupied the runway.
Military sources said that a plane carrying representatives of the Bamako government ahead of Mara's visit had been prevented from landing in Kidal on Friday.
(Reporting by Adama Diarra in Gao, Tiemoko Diallo in Bamako and Emma Farge in Dakar; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg and William Hardy)