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Mali goes to the polls for first time since coup

Malians have voted in the first elections to be held since last year's military coup. Voters defied threatened Islamist attacks on polling stations.

Malians turned out in droves to choose a president from among 27 candidates in Sunday's elections. Some 6.8 million people are eligible to vote.

The candidates include one woman and 26 men, with the frontrunners considered to be former premier Ibrahim Boubacar Keita and Soumaila Cisse, a past chairman of the Commission of the West African Monetary union.

The vote is the first since Islamist militants hijacked a separatist uprising to seize much of the country in a coup that saw elected president Anadou Toumani Toure toppled. A number of Islamist groups allied to al-Qaeda now control the north of the country.

One of these groups, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), has threatened to carry out "mujahideen strikes" on polling stations on Sunday, according to the Mauritanian ANI news agency. The group also warned the "Muslims of Mali" against taking part in the elections and urged them to stay away.

A UN peacekeeping mission will be responsible for maintaining election security and in the months after the election. By the end of the year, the mission will have grown to 11,200 troops and 1,400 police.

Troubled north

The deployment is allowing former colonial ruler France to begin pulling out most of the 4,500 troops it sent to Mali in January to prevent the Islamists advancing on the capital, Bamako, from their northern strongholds.

Continued violence in the north has cast doubt on Mali's ability to have safe and credible elections. Critics at home and abroad have warned against holding a botched election that could increase instability.

But Louis Michel, the head of the European Union observation mission, said on Friday that conditions had been met for a credible first round.

Speaking to reporters in Bamako, he said, "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."

Before last year's coup, Mali had gained a reputation for stability and had become Africa's third ranked gold producer.

tj/jlw (Reuters, AFP)