August 12, 2018 / 12:05 AM / 4 months ago

Mali votes in run-off amid heavy security to counter militant threat

BAMAKO (Reuters) - Malians voted in a run-off presidential election on Sunday but observers reported that turnout was low, with several polling stations coming under attack from armed men and one election official killed.

Electoral workers transport ballot boxes before the polls open during a presidential run-off election in Bamako, Mali August 12, 2018. REUTERS/Luc Gnago

Thousands of soldiers were mobilised to provide security following an inconclusive first round last month that was marred by militant attacks and opposition accusations of fraud.

The Mali Citizen Observation Pool (POCIM) said there had been a “persistent climate of tension in some polling centres in Segou, Bamako and several other localities” in the run-off.

Despite problems, the election had generally being conducted well, European Union observers said in preliminary comments.

In the worst incident, armed men killed the chairman of the electoral office in Arkodia village in Niafunke region in northern Mali, an army spokesman said, confirming observers’ reports.

Incumbent President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, 73, is expected to win a second term even though he has been unable to stem a surge in ethnic and militant violence.

However opposition challenger Soumalia Cisse, 68, a former finance minister, said he was confident of victory but also accused the government camp of trying to stuff ballot boxes.

Mali is high on the list of Western powers’ security concerns, and a respectable election is important in the effort to restore stability to the vast West African nation.

Militants, some linked to al Qaeda and Islamic State, have regrouped since French troops pushed them back in 2013 from areas they had seized in the north.

They are now expanding their influence again across the desert north and into the fertile centre of the country. Former colonial ruler France and the United States have deployed troops across West Africa to combat the threat.

Mali is also a major transit route for illegal migrants trying to reach Europe, a concern in European Union capitals.

For Malians the election is about securing peace but also alleviating hardship and poverty.

Soldiers searched voters in the capital Bamako as they waited in line under rainy skies to cast their ballots.

“I voted without problem. I came to fulfil my duty as a citizen,” said Dramane Camara, 31, at a polling station in a school in Bamako. “I expect the new president to solve the problem of the north, which is peace. Because the return of peace means the return of NGOs, investors, so creating jobs.”

After polls had closed at 6 p.m. local time, POCIM estimated the total turnout at 22 percent. That included 19 percent in Mopti, 35 percent in Timbuktu and 24 percent in the capital.

Two polling stations were set on fire in Douentza district, and electoral agents were threatened, it said.

Voting was halted in Sendegue and Takoutala, two villages in Mopti region, after armed men chased away electoral agents.

“In general, there have been problems with a lack of ballot papers, poor quality ink, and a failure to display voters lists in front of the polling stations,” POCIM said in a statement.

SECURITY STEPPED UP

The first round on July 29 was marred by armed attacks and other security incidents at about a fifth of polling places.

The government stepped up security for the run-off, putting 6,000 troops on the streets on top of 30,000 already on duty.

The head of the European Union observer mission, Italian politician Cecile Kyenge, said that apart from the killing in Niafunke, the election appeared to have taken place without major incidents. But, she said, the EU had no observers in Timbuktu, Mopti and Kidal - areas where violence has been rife.

Keita urged people not to respond to any provocation as he voted in Bamako. “I pledge that all the difficulties we faced are now behind us,” he told cheering supporters.

Keita - known as IBK - took 41 percent of the vote in the first round against nearly 18 percent for Cisse.

Results from the first round took five days to emerge and authorities have not said when they expect the run-off result to be announced.

Slideshow (7 Images)

Cisse, who lost against Keita in 2013, said he was confident of victory when he voted in his hometown Niafunke. “We travelled across the whole country and we found an extremely strong desire for change everywhere,” he said.

Cisse also accused the other side of cheating, saying in Bamako they had found people before the vote who already had ballot papers.

Cisse, who blames Keita for the worsening violence and accuses his government of rampant corruption, also alleged fraud in the first round but the constitutional court upheld the result.

Additional reporting by Cheick Amadou Diouara and Fadimata Kontao; Writing by Aaron Ross and Angus MacSwan, Editing by Susan Fenton, Richard Balmforth, David Stamp and Cynthia Osterman

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