Charred timbers are all that remain of a dozen Tuareg homes burned down last week in Mali's northern city of Timbuktu by a mob angry after reports of a gun attack on Malian security forces nearby.

The mob blamed the Tuaregs, who in Timbuktu number about 25 families among some 17,000 Malians who have returned this year to their homes after taking refuge in the neighboring countries of Mauritania, Burkina Faso and Niger.

In Timbuktu, the returnees are met with distrust, scorn and violence by residents who blame them for the unrest that has enveloped northern Mali in recent years.

Tuareg separatists took hold of Mali's north in 2012 during a coup in the south that caused a vacuum of power. Al-Qaida-linked militants then took control, staging violent attacks, until they were pushed out of their strongholds by French forces in 2013. Since then the north has remained on edge, with about 10,000 United Nations soldiers and 5,000 Malian troops maintaining an uneasy peace, though extremists and separatists stage occasional attacks.

It was hoped the situation would improve when the government signed a peace accord with the separatists in June.

Fadimata Ghaicha Walet Ibrahim, who returned from the Mbera refugee camp in Mauritania, said her family is stigmatized.

"The black population, when they see the military around, they gather to come attack us. One woman who had come from the middle of town, she nearly got lynched by that lot ... She was saved only by the grace of God," Ibrahim said. "The soldiers told them to set fire to the huts."

Neighbors accuse the returned families of sheltering rebels, she said.

Aware of the problem, Mohamed Ibrahim Cisse, the president of the regional assembly, urges Malian security forces to act within the law and not encourage attacks on the returned families.

"No one can explain or endorse such abuses whatever their origin, whether done by the security forces or by the armed groups or the people," he said.