Bamako - Counting was under way Monday in Mali following a key presidential election that saw balloting halted at hundreds of polling stations because of violence in restive regions of the poor Sahel country.
Despite the violence, candidates and authorities praised Sunday's first round of voting, relieved that the violence -- which included the torching of polling stations and assaults on electoral officials -- caused no casualties.
Security was a central issue during the campaign, in which 73-year-old President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita is seeking re-election with the international community hoping the poll will strengthen a 2015 peace accord.
Leading the pack of his 23 challengers is Soumaila Cisse, 68, a former finance and economy minister, who lost by a wide margin in the 2013 election that brought Keita to power.
Cisse's campaign director said the team was "legitimately satisfied" after the vote, while slamming authorities for failing to provide adequate security -- even though 30,000 security personnel were deployed throughout the country.
"Very luckily, there were no casualties," the campaign said in a statement following the polls, which were observed by teams from the European Union, the African Union, the regional ECOWAS grouping and the Francophonie organisation.
Cisse's team had warned of possible election fraud, claiming that there were two electoral lists and hundreds of fake polling stations.
He and other challengers who include several former ministers and just one woman - an entrepreneur - have accused Keita of incompetence on security matters.
Most of the violence on Sunday occurred in the north and centre of the sprawling semi-desert country, regions already hit by ethnic unrest and jihadism.
Notably the central Mopti region has seen frequent clashes between Fulani herders and farmers that have killed dozens since the start of the year.
Not a single ballot was cast at 716 polling stations in the two regions following threats and attacks by armed groups, government figures showed.
In Mali's north, where the state is barely present, armed groups who signed the peace accord helped to ensure security.
Violence also marred the lead-up to the vote, despite the presence of 15,000 UN peacekeepers, 4,500 French troops and a much heralded five-nation anti-terror G5 Sahel force.
The jihadist violence has spread from northern Mali to the centre and south of the country and spilled over into neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger, often inflaming communal conflicts.
Mali, considered a linchpin state in the troubled Sahel region, is one of the world's poorest countries, with most people living on less than $2 a day.
The 2015 agreement, which Mali sees as the cornerstone for peace, was struck between the government, government-allied groups and Tuareg former rebels to fight jihadist fighters in the north.
- 'God does not like elections' -
The organisation of the vote was "a huge security challenge," Prime Minister Soumeylou Boubeye Maiga said late Sunday, praising the proceedings "despite minor security incidents."
Election officials were attacked, polling stations destroyed and state administrators banned from villages by armed groups, according to local authorities and observers.
And there was no voting in the village of Lafia, in the northern Timbuktu region, after the ballot boxes were set on fire, local authorities said.
One source said the boxes were burned after men he said were jihadists fired shots into the sky. "One of them said 'God does not like elections'."
Elsewhere in the country, however, voting occurred smoothly despite low voter turnout, according to electoral observers and AFP journalists.
Official participation figures were not immediately available.
"If we take into account the rates of the past 10 years, turnout was not at all abysmal," a local government official said, without elaborating.
Turnout has never exceeded 50% in the first round of a presidential election since the advent of democracy to the former French colony in 1992.
First results are expected by late Tuesday, and the official outcome is set to follow on Friday at the latest.
If no candidate gains more than 50% of the first-round vote, a second round will take place on August 12.AFP