Malians have voted in a crucial presidential election as attacks disrupted polling in areas already beset by deadly ethnic violence.
Despite the deployment of 30,000 security personnel throughout the country, several incidents were reported on Sunday in the country’s northern and central regions.
Voting was briefly suspended at a polling station in a village in the northern region of Kidal after the firing of about 10 mortar shells, according to Olivier Salgado, spokesperson for the United Nations’ mission in Mali, MINUSMA.
No one was killed in the attack, which a Mali-based al-Qaeda affiliate later claimed responsibility for.
Separately, unidentified gunmen burned polling stations and ballot boxes in the village of Lafia, in the northern Timbuktu region. As a result, voting could not take place, 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 news agency.
The official added the boxes were burned after shots were fired into the sky. “One of them said ‘God does not like elections’.”
Al Jazeera’s Mohamed Vall, reporting from the capital, Bamako, said armed groups linked to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb had issued threats of violence in recent weeks.
“They warned that they will try to disrupt this election, particularly in those areas in the north.”
Vall said, however, that voting in Bamako went “smoothly throughout the day”.
“There were also no reports of major incidents in the south,” he added.
Eight million voters were registered for Sunday’s election, a total of 23,000 polling stations opened at 08:00 GMT and closed at 18:00 GMT.
“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 Bamako.
In a message on UN radio, Mahamat Saleh Anadif, head of MINUSMA, 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 Vall said voters in Bamako 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.
The main rival of 73-year-old Keita is Soumaila Cisse, 68.
“However, no sitting president in the history of Mali has been dislodged from power by an opposition leader in any election,” said Vall.
Keita suggested during his campaign that peace had already been restored, saying he toured all over Mali and “nowhere did I feel afraid”.
But insecurity is such, that in some parts of the country, the vote will simply not happen, and the European Union observer mission urged the government on Saturday to publish a list of places that will be unable to vote, so as to quell suspicions by candidates of “fictitious polling stations”.
In the past three years, attacks have tripled and violent deaths have doubled, according to civil society website Malilink.
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 UN’s 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.