DAKAR, Jan 21 (Reuters) - Hundreds of people protesting against air strikes on Tuareg rebels by United Nations peacekeepers in Mali occupied the airport in the northern town of Kidal on Wednesday, forcing U.N. troops to abandon positions there.
The protest by several hundred people - mainly women and children - in the rebel stronghold comes a day after Dutch U.N. attack helicopters hit rebel forces in northern Mali during clashes over a separate town, the first such engagement by peacekeepers.
"They were violent. They threw stones, they burned some assets," U.N. spokeswoman Radhia Achouri told Reuters. "We ordered our units guarding the airport to go inside the camp."
Achouri said 200-300 people were involved in the protest.
A Kidal resident at the scene said U.N. troops had shot in the air to try to disperse the crowds but protests had continued so the U.N. troops left the airport for their base in the town.
Achouri said she was not aware of reports of any shots being fired.
The resident said tents and generators had been set on fire and U.N. flags had been replaced by those of Azawad, the name rebels gave northern desert homeland they wanted to carve out of Mali when they rebelled in 2012.
"They are calling on MINUSMA to leave. They don't want them here any more," the resident said, asking not to be named.
U.N. peacekeepers are meant to be helping Malian forces secure the vast northern desert zone which was occupied by separatist rebels and al Qaeda-linked militants in 2012 before a French intervention scattered insurgents.
French forces are hunting down Islamists and peace talks are now under way with the separatist rebels but insecurity has spiked in the north as negotiations stalled and Islamists mounted a resurgence.
(Reporting by David Lewis and Emma Farge; Editing by Dominic Evans)
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