A French soldier checks passengers from a transport truck arriving in Gao, northern Mali. File picture: Jerome Delay

Bamako - Mali's Prime Minister Moussa Mara began a first visit since his appointment six weeks ago to the west African nation's rebel-infested northern desert on Friday.

Mara will travel 1 500 kilometres (930 miles) northeast of the capital Bamako to the lawless region of Kidal, where several hundred youths and women were demonstrating against the visit at the local airport, according to the governor's office.

His predecessor Oumar Tatam Ly was forced to cancel a trip to Kidal - the stronghold of Mali's Tuareg separatist movement, who call the vast, sparsely northern desert Azawad - after protesters occupied a runway at the airport in November.

“People are shouting 'Mali - no, Azawad - yes',” an official in the governor's office told AFP.

A source in Mara's cabinet said the visit will last two days, starting in the region of Timbuktu, home of the fabled desert caravan town of the same name, and moving to Gao before wrapping up in Kidal on Saturday.

Mara was accompanied on the Timbuktu leg by Annick Girardin, the French Secretary of State for Development and Francophonie, and the European Commissioner for Development, Andris Piebalgs.

Security will be provided by United Nations peacekeepers and the French army, which led an international military intervention in January last year against Islamists linked to Al-Qaeda who had occupied the north.