* Visit to north Mali seen as symbolic for new PM
* Kidal seen as heartland of Tuareg separatists
* U.N. peacekeeping force says 26 injured in protests (Changes dateline, updates throughout)
By Adama Diarra
KIDAL, Mali, May 17 (Reuters) - A gunbattle erupted between the Malian army and MNLA Tuareg separatists in the northern city of Kidal on Saturday shortly before a visit by the prime minister, an army source and an MNLA spokesman said.
Mali's new prime minister, Moussa Mara, landed 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.
A spokesman for the MNLA said the gunfight began on Saturday morning after the army opened fire on their barracks following pro-independence protests in the city.
"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.
An army source travelling with Mara confirmed that clashes had taken place near the local governor's office and said that at least one person had been killed, without giving details.
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.
The trip to Kidal, a city 1,500 km north of the capital Bamako and seen as part of the Tuareg heartland, is symbolic for the government as it seeks to show that it has stamped its authority there.
"Long live a diverse Mali but one that is united and indivisible," Mara said on Twitter ahead of his departure.
Tensions between separatists and supporters of the government are a simmering undercurrent of daily life in Kidal, although flare ups have been relatively rare and the latest violence appeared to have been triggered by Mara's visit.
Kidal resident Assikadaye Ag Waezagane said at least 100 pro-independence protesters had gathered at the airport since Friday and at one point occupied the runway.
A Reuters journalist travelling with Mara on a tour of northern cities said the violence in Kidal prompted the delegation to take a U.N. peacekeeping (MINUSMA) helicopter to a military base there instead of a regular flight to the airport.
Military sources said a plane carrying representatives of the government ahead of Mara's visit had also been prevented from landing in Kidal on Friday.
Mara's group had been due to visit the local governor's office for a meeting but that was cancelled. An apparently injured Malian soldier lay beside the road about 50 metres from the office. It was not clear if it was the same soldier the army source referred to.
MINUSMA said 19 police and seven protesters had been injured since the protests started.
"MINUSMA strongly condemns acts of violence that have continued since yesterday morning in the city of Kidal," it said in a statement on Saturday. (Reporting by Adama Diarra in Gao, Tiemoko Diallo in Bamako and Emma Farge in Dakar; Editing by Alison Williams)
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.