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Bamako (AFP) - Mali's president pulled out of an African Union summit Thursday to visit the restive city of Gao following the deaths of protesters in violent demonstrations against the United Nations.
Ibrahim Boubacar Keita had been due to fly to Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, a day ahead of a meeting of the 54-nation bloc, but changed his plans following the bloodshed in Mali's restive north.
"An investigation will be launched to find out who is responsible. This crime will not go unpunished," Keita told reporters after landing in northern Mali's largest city.
The president visited the families of three people killed Tuesday, the second day of demonstrations against the UN in Gao, as well as wounded protesters being treated in hospital.
Witnesses to the riot described a huge crowd of angry youths throwing stones and attempting to storm the headquarters of MINUSMA, the UN's military mission in Mali.
The force initially denied it was behind the deaths but later said it would investigate to establish its role in the violence.
"I came to express my affection. I am with you with all my heart. Mali's heart goes out to you. I also want to tell you that MINUSMA is not our enemy," the Malian leader told a meeting of civil society activists and residents.
"We must avoid being influenced by other individuals who do not like our happiness."
The protesters were angry about a UN plan, since withdrawn, to create a "temporary security zone" in the northern town of Tabankort, which they said would undermine loyalist armed groups fighting rebels in the area.
Tabankort is part of a large swathe of desert which is the cradle of a Tuareg separatist movement that wants independence for the homeland it calls "Azawad", and from which several rebellions have been launched since the 1960s.
The town, northwest of the rebel stronghold of Kidal, is controlled by pro-government militias however which have clashed over the last month with armed rebels, leading to the deaths of fighters and civilians.
Around a dozen people were killed on Wednesday when a pro-government armed group, including suicide bombers, launched an attack on rebel fighters in Tabankort.
Algeria and the UN, which are leading mediation talks between the government and rebels, fear the violence in the north will jeopardise the peace process.
Mali gained independence from France in 1960 but ethnic divisions run deep and the west African nation has been riven by conflict for much of the last half-century.