Hundreds of polling stations closed in tense Mali runoff
Nearly 500 polling stations were unable to open in Mali's tense presidential runoff, the government said on Monday, mostly in regions plagued by jihadist violence and ethnic tension.
Vote counting was underway across the vast West African country after a poll marked by violence and low turnout.
"We had a little over 3.7% of stations which had not functioned properly" during the first round on July 29, Salif Traore, Mali's security minister, said on Monday.
The figure fell to 2.1% of the 23 000 polling booths in Sunday's runoff vote, which Traore said was due to the deployment of 36 000 Malian military, a 20% increase on the first round.
President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, 73, is the clear frontrunner in a reprise of his 2013 faceoff against former finance minister Soumaila Cisse, 68.
In a reminder of the jihadist threat that was a major campaign issue, the overseer of a polling station in Arkodia, in the northern region of Timbuktu, was shot dead by armed Islamist militants, local officials said.
Aside from this "dramatic case," the government said the poll has occurred without incidents.
The European Union also said in 300 polling stations its observers visited, no "major incident" occurred. The EU observers' mission deployed monitors in the northern town of Gao, but not in Timbuktu or Kidal, also in the north, or to Mopti in the centre.
Turnout was just 22.38%, local monitors of the POCIM (the Mali Citizen Observation Pool) said.
Keita the favourite
In the first-round vote on July 29, Keita was clearly ahead, with 42% against 18% for Cisse.
Despite fierce criticism of Keita for his handling of the security crisis, Cisse failed to rally the support of other parties behind him for the runoff, leaving the incumbent seemingly on track for a second consecutive landslide.
Results are expected by mid-week at the earliest.
The three main opposition candidates had mounted a last-ditch legal challenge to the first-round result, alleging ballot-box stuffing and other irregularities.
But their petition was rejected by the Constitutional Court.
Cisse's party told AFP in the early hours of Sunday that ballot papers were already circulating, several hours before polls opened.
In at least six stations in the capital of Bamako, voting reports - which give the number of voters and votes cast for each candidate - were signed before the numbers were filled in, an AFP journalist witnessed.
Six members of Soumaila Cisse's campaign team, including four French, were arrested on Sunday, the team and Traore, the minister of security, said.
Five of the six were released without charges after being held for two hours in a Bamako police station, a source close to the team said. Their phones and laptops were seized.
Mali, a landlocked nation home to at least 20 ethnic groups where the majority of people live on less than $2 a day, has battled jihadist attacks and intercommunal violence for years.
Beyond its borders, the international community hope that the winner will consolidate a 2015 accord that the fragile Sahel state sees as its foundation for peace.
The deal brought together the government, government-allied groups and former Tuareg rebels.
But jihadist violence has spread from the north to the centre and south of the vast country and spilled into neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger, often inflaming communal conflicts.
A state of emergency heads into its fourth year in November.
France still has 4 500 troops deployed alongside the UN's 15 000 peacekeepers and a regional G5 Sahel force, aimed at rooting out jihadists and restoring the authority of the state.
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