Violence flares up as Malians vote in key election


Malians voted on Sunday in a crucial presidential election as attacks disrupted polling in areas already beset by deadly ethnic and jihadist violence.

Despite the deployment of 30 000 security personnel throughout the country, several incidents were reported in the north and centre.

Rockets were fired on the UN mission (MINUSMA) camp in Aguelhok, in the northeast, according to a UN security source who added that "there are no casualties and the rockets did not fall into the camp."

Elsewhere, unidentified gunmen burned polling stations and ballot boxes.

President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, 73, leads a crowded field of 24 candidates - including just woman - bidding for re-election to the post he has held since 2013. He voted in Sebenicoro, near the capital Bamako, surrounded by journalists and supporters.

Keita's record on security has been a dominant theme, with opponents, including several former ministers, accusing him of incompetence.

The international community hopes the poll will strengthen a 2015 accord that Mali, a linchpin state in the troubled Sahel region, sees as the cornerstone for peace.

On the campaign trail, Keita - commonly known by his initials IBK - highlighted the achievements of the peace agreement between the government, government-allied groups and former Tuareg rebels to fight jihadist fighters in the country's north.

Polling station, ballots burned 

Voting could not take place in the village of Lafia, in the northern Timbuktu region, after the ballot boxes were set on fire, according to local authorities.

"Overnight Saturday, armed men arrived at the town hall where the ballot boxes and electoral material were held," a local official told AFP.

The source added the boxes were burned after "jihadists" fired shots into the sky. "One of them said 'God does not like elections'."

In Dianke, in the central Niafunke region where main opposition contender Soumaila Cisse voted in the morning, gunmen burned two polling stations, local official Oumar Sall told AFP.

Casting her ballot in Niafunke, Oumou Diarra, a young woman voting for the first time, told AFP: "It is very important to vote. I have just voted for change."

Violence marred the lead-up to the vote, despite the presence of 15 000 UN peacekeepers and 4 500 French troops and a heralded five-nation anti-terror G5 Sahel force. A state of emergency will enter its fourth year in November.

More than 300 civilians have died in ethnic clashes this year, according to UN figures and an AFP toll.

Many deaths have occurred in the central region of Mopti, involving the Fulani nomadic herder community and Bambara and Dogon farmers.

Four days before polling day, armed men - described as Dogon hunters - killed 17 Fulani civilians in the village of Somena, Fulani representatives said on Friday.

Jihadist violence, meanwhile, has spread from northern Mali to the centre and south and spilled over into neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger, often inflaming communal conflicts.

The main Al-Qaeda-linked jihadist alliance made its presence felt on the final day of campaigning on Friday, dubbing the election a "mirage" that would do nothing for the Malian people.

"Today, to make peace, to have stability, we need the population to vote," said Mohamed Ag Intalla, a Tuareg tribal chief in Kidal, stronghold of the former rebellion in the northeast.

In Mali's north, where the state is barely present, armed groups who signed the peace accord are helping to ensure security.

 Refugees vote in Mauritania 

Turnout - which has never exceeded 50% in a presidential election first round since the advent of democracy in 1992 - was low during a rainy morning.

Observer teams are in place from the European Union, the African Union, the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) and the International Organisation of La Francophonie.

In Mbera, the world's biggest Malian refugee camp in southeastern Mauritania, more than 7 000 voters were registered at 28 polling stations, Ahmedou Ag Boukhary, a camp official, told AFP.

Keita's challengers are headed by Cisse, 68, a former finance and economy minister, who lost by a wide margin in the second round of the 2013 election.

His team have warned of possible fraud, claiming that there are two electoral lists and hundreds of fake polling stations.

The some 23 000 polling stations are scheduled to close at 1800 GMT, with first results expected within 48 hours.

The official outcome is set to follow on Friday at the latest.

If no candidate gains more than 50% of the vote in Sunday's first round, a second round will take place on August 12.

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