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BAMAKO, Mali, Feb 8 (Reuters) - Heavy gunfire erupted in the west of Mali's capital Bamako on Friday, as government forces exchanged fire with mutinous paratroopers, military sources and witnesses said.
Government forces sealed off the area around the paratroopers' base, as reinforcements arrived to quell the mutiny which was protesting disciplinary measures against some of the unit's members. Smoke was seen rising from the camp.
Since a military coup in March last year that plunged Mali into chaos and led to the occupation of the north by Tuareg and Islamist rebels, paratroopers loyal to former President Amadou Toumani Toure had been largely sidelined and some arrested.
"The Chief of Staff had taken a disciplinary measure against some of the paratroopers, and some of them were not happy with the decision so they woke up this morning and started shooting," a Malian defense ministry official told Reuters.
The shooting in the southern capital Bamako occurred while French and Chadian troops hunted Islamist rebels hundreds of kilometres (miles) to the north in the second phase of a French-led military operation against al Qaeda-allied insurgents.
North of Gao, a Saharan town recently recaptured from the Islamists, a suicide bomber on a motobike blew himself up on Friday, injuring one Malian soldier, a Mali military officer said.
It was the first reported suicide bombing since the French-led military intervention launched on Jan. 11 drove the Islamist rebels from their desert strongholds of Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal in northern Mali.
"A kamikaze on a motorbike just blew himself up at the Bourem checkpoint at 6:30 am (0630 GMT). One lightly wounded soldier from Gao," the officer told Reuters by text message.
In Bamako, groups of the paratroopers, who wear red berets, had been staging protests to demand that commanders send them to the front to join the offensive against the Islamists.
The French-led military operation involving 4,000 French troops backed by warplanes successfully pushed the Islamist rebels out of the main towns of northern Mali, but driving them from their mountain bases could prove a tougher task.
France and its western allies are pushing for a national political settlement and democratic elections to stabilise the situation in the West Africa state, where interim civilian leaders have faced interference from March coup leader Captain Amadou Sanogo and other junta officers.
In May, Sanogo's troops said they put down a counter-coup attempt led by paratroopers which led to several days of fighting in the riverside capital in which at least 27 people were killed. (Reporting by Tiemoko Diallo and Adama Diarra in Bamako; Writing by Pascal Fletcher; Editing by Daniel Flynn)