Millions of Malians are expected to vote in elections they hope will usher in a new era of peace and stability in a country torn apart by an 18-month political crisis and armed conflict.

Voters will have a choice of 27 candidates on Sunday as they go to the polls for the first time since a separatist uprising led to a coup and then a sweeping religious offensive last year which upended one of the region's most stable democracies.

I believe that these elections can take place in a context and in conditions that are acceptable and do not allow for a distortion or an abuse of the result.

Louis Michel, head of European Union observation mission

The three-week campaign came to a close on Friday without major incidents, but it was played out in the shadow of violence in the north which has cast doubt over Mali's readiness to deliver a safe and credible elections.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Mali's interim leader Dioncounda Traore have acknowledged that the vote may be "imperfect" in a country with 500,000 citizens displaced by conflict, but have urged Malians to respect the outcome.

Critics of the process have argued that Mali, under pressure from the international community, is rushing to the polls and risking a botched election which could do more harm than good.

But Louis Michel, the head of the European Union observation mission said conditions had been met for a credible first round as it emerged that 85 percent of voter cards had been distributed.

"I believe that these elections can take place in a context and in conditions that are acceptable and do not allow for a distortion or an abuse of the result," he told reporters in the capital Bamako.

Much of the worry ahead of the polls has been focused on Kidal, occupied for five months by Tuareg separatists until a ceasefire accord allowed the Malian army earlier this month to provide security.

Ethnic clashes between Tuaregs and black civilians as little as a week ago left four people dead while five polling officials were kidnapped in Tessalit, 200km north of Kidal, by gunmen thought to be from the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA).

Source: Agencies