Nouakchott - Small groups of voters trickled into polling centres in Mauritania early on Saturday in an election where incumbent President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz was counting on a high turnout to see off an opposition boycott and boost his authority.
Abdel Aziz - a Western ally in the fight against al Qaeda-linked Islamists in West Africa - is sure to win the poll in the nation straddling black and Arab Africa.
But the bulk of the opposition boycotted last year's parliamentary elections and talks to try to persuade them to take part in Saturday's vote broke down in April, leaving Abdel Aziz, a former head of the presidential guard, no major rivals.
Analysts said his main challenge will be to persuade enough voters to turn out for the presidential vote and give him a strong mandate.
In the first hours of voting, turnout appeared low, even at major polling stations in the capital Nouakchott.
“There aren't too many people voting now because it's early in the morning and it's the weekend,” Toinssi Cheikh, a trader, told Reuters after voting at the largely empty polling station at the Olympic Stadium in the city centre.
“By 3 or 4 pm you will see more people voting,” he said.
Mauritania has reserves of iron ore, copper and gold and is trying to boost investor interest in its oil and gas. However, it has long been plagued by political instability and military coups.
Abdel Aziz came to power in August 2008 when he ousted President Sidi Mohamed Ould Cheikh Abdellahi, the country's first democratically elected president, whose short stint as leader was undone by fighting within his own party.
He then won a 5-year term in a 2009 election that was heavily criticised by the opposition.
Western nations soon re-engaged with Mauritania's military, which has taken a strong stand against Islamist groups in the country and neighbouring Mali.
Abdel Aziz sent his army, considered one of the most effective in West Africa, to carry out military strikes against Islamist bases in neighbouring Mali in 2010 and 2011.
The four challengers in the boycott-reduced field are former government minister Boidel Ould Houmeid, anti-slavery campaigner Biram Ould Abeid, Ibrahima Sarr, a challenger from the 2009 vote, and Mint Moulaye Idriss, an administrator at Mauritania's national press agency and the country's second female candidate. - Reuters