Malians cast ballots in a presidential vote in the largely desert nation fractured by armed groups across its north and central zones since the last poll in 2013.
Eight million voters were registered for Sunday’s election. After a campaign marred by violent incidents, 23,000 polling stations opened at 08:00 GMT and are scheduled to close at 18:00 GMT.
More than 30,000 personnel were drafted to ensure security.
“I have my voting card, I am going to vote for my country and for my favourite president,” said Moriba Camara, a 35-year-old teacher, in the Sebenicoro district of the capital Bamako.
In a message on UN radio, Mahamat Saleh Anadif, head of the UN mission in Mali, urged Malians to use their right to vote.
“Dear Malians, do not add another crisis into the current crisis. Use this day to vote peacefully and respect the outcome,” Anadif said.
Mali’s national broadcaster ORTM reported a large turnout of voters in the capital.
The first poll results are expected within 48 hours, with official results following on Friday at the latest. If no candidate gains more than 50 percent of the vote, a second round will take place on August 12.
Voting for peace
More than 300 civilians have died in ethnic clashes this year, according to UN figures.
Al Jazeera’s Mohamed Vall, reporting from Bamako, said voters told him they were casting their ballots “for peace”.
“It is a keyword now, here in Mali. People are fed up. This is what they have been telling us. The incumbent President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita has miserably failed in stabilising the country,” he said.
Keita’s main rival Soumaila Cisse, 68, is seen as having the strongest chance of ousting him, he said.
“However, no sitting president in the history of Mali has been dislodged from power by an opposition leader in any election.”
|Insecurity has taken the shine off Keita’s achievements in the economy [Luc Gnago/Reuters]|
Keita, 73, suggested during his campaign that peace had already been restored, saying he toured all over Mali and “nowhere did I feel afraid”.
But insecurity was, in fact, such that in some parts of the country voting simply did not happen.
The European Union observer mission urged the government on Saturday to publish a list of places that would be unable to vote so as to quell suspicions by candidates of “fictitious polling stations”.
“These are polling stations in which we know insecurity … won’t make the vote possible there,” EU mission head Cecile Kyenge told journalists.
In the past three years, attacks have tripled and violent deaths have doubled, according to civil society website Malilink.
|Mali has been fractured by armed groups across its north and central zones [Luc Gnago/Reuters]|
Rebels have spread from the north to the centre and even targeted Bamako. In 2015, gunmen killed 20 people in a raid on the Radisson Blu hotel.
Last month, a suicide bomber drove a vehicle laden with explosives into the headquarters of the regional G5 Sahel anti-terrorism force in Severe, central Mali, killing three people.
The United Nations peacekeeping mission to Mali has suffered more fatalities than any throughout history, with about 170 peacekeepers killed, and human rights groups have raised the alarm over alleged executions by security forces.
The defence ministry promised to investigate evidence linking them to mass graves.
Insecurity has taken the shine off Keita’s achievements in the economy: average growth of around five percent during his leadership, and Mali’s important exports, gold and cotton, have flourished – as have agricultural staples, such as rice.
|Voters told Al Jazeera they were casting their ballots ‘for peace’ [Luc Gnago/Reuters]|
SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies