Malians are voting in the country’s first election since last year’s military coup and subsequent French intervention that drove out rebels, who had captured most of the country’s north amid a political vacuum.

The ballot opened at 8:00am local time (08:00 GMT) on Sunday under heavy security a day after one of the main armed groups in northern Mali said it would "strike" polling stations.

Al Jazeera's Mohamed Vall reports from Mbere refugee camp

"The polling stations and other voting places for what they are calling the elections will be targeted by mujahideen strikes," the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) said in a statement carried by the Mauritanian ANI news agency.

It did not specify what form the attacks would take. The group warned Malian Muslims against taking part in the election, ordering them to "stay away from the polls".

Al Jazeera's Nazanine Moshiri, reporting from Bamako, said there was heavy security at Aminata Jop, the main polling station in Bamako, as well as a lot of confusion among voters who could not find their names on the registers.

"There has been a bit of confusion about the electoral lists, but at the same time officials are telling me that 80 percent of people have actually managed to get their electoral cards, which will enable them to cast their votes," our correspondent said.

Seven million voters

Nearly seven million people are eligible to vote in Sunday's polls, but many of those voting are illiterate and struggling to find where they should be going.

There are also logistical issues, with refugees living in the Mbere refugee camp near Bassikounou on the Mali-Mauritania border travelling up to 18km just to cast their ballot.

Voting was taking place at about 21,000 polling stations across Mali, and in the northern desert town of Timbuktu, seized by al-Qaeda-linked rebels during last year's rebellion, people turned up in large numbers.

In a polling station at a school in the capital, Bamako, hundreds of voters had been queuing for more than an hour to cast their ballots.

"We are tired of bad governance. I'd urge the candidates to accept the results of our vote," said machine operator Kalifa Traore, 56.

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There are reports of scenes of confusion in Timbuktu and Gao, according to our sources, where some people have not turned up at all, they have opened their shops and are not voting, our correspondent said.

Millions will exercise their ballot to choose the country’s president from among 27 candidates in the country, which once was one of West Africa’s most stable democracies.

On the eve of the election, acting President Dioncounda Traore, in a televised address, urged Malians to ensure a massive turnout in a country where the participation rate is usually around 40 percent. Traore himself is not a candidate.

Haidara Aichata Cisse is the only woman in the race, running against past prime ministers Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, Cheick Modibo Diarra, Modibo Sidibe and Soumana Sacko.

Credibility issues

Although the three-week campaign ended on Friday without major incident, it played out in the shadow of violence in the north that has cast doubt over Mali's readiness to deliver a safe and credible election.

Critics at home and abroad have argued that Mali, under pressure from the international community, is rushing to the polls and risking a botched election that could do more harm than good.
There are questions as to how the hundreds of thousands of Malians, who have been living in refugee camps in neighbouring countries such as Mauritania and Burkina Faso after they fled the war, will participate in the polls.
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Much of the worry ahead of the polls has been focused on the northern city of Kidal, occupied for five months by Tuareg separatists until a ceasefire accord allowed the Malian army earlier this month to provide security.

Clashes between Tuaregs and black Africans in the run-up to the election left four people dead.

Gunmen thought to be from the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), who have been fighting for a homeland for Tuaregs, also kidnapped five polling officials 200km north of Kidal.

The ballot will be the first since the military mutiny in March last year that toppled democratically elected President Amadou Toumani Toure.

The ensuing confusion helped the MNLA to capture most of the northern part of the country, but they were later sidelined by MUJAO and other groups allied to al-Qaeda.

A UN peacekeeping mission integrating more than 6,000 African soldiers into its ranks is charged with ensuring security on Sunday and in the months after the election. By the end of the year it will have grown to 11,200 troops and 1,400 police.

The deployment allows France to start withdrawing most of the 4,500 troops it sent to Mali in January to stop the fighters from advancing towards Bamako from their northern strongholds.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies