Bamako, Mali - Voting started slowly Sunday as people in Mali head to the polls to vote for a president amid increasing attacks by a number of extremist groups linked to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State organization.
Voters have expressed concern about being targeted after al-Qaeda's Mali branch had warned months ago against going to the polls. Deadly communal clashes between ethnic groups and accusations of heavy-handed counterterror operations have complicated what President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita hopes will be an election victory leading him to a second term.
The 73-year-old, who was elected in 2013, faces 23 candidates in the first round.
His main challenger is 68-year-old Soumaila Cisse, his rival in 2013, who has criticized the president for not addressing Mali's rising insecurity.
A small line formed at one polling station in Bamako.
Hawa Keita, a 53-year-old dressed in all white, said she has been travelling all morning from her small village of Farabana, about 30 kilometres (18 miles) from Bamako, to vote.
"I woke up at 3 a.m. to take public transit to vote here. It is a national cause, and I wish for the development of my country and employment for my children," she said.
Several political parties have expressed doubts about a valid election after duplicate and fictitious polling stations were listed on the electoral commission's website.
The government and the electoral commission have promised a smooth vote, but many in Mali are still worried.
More than 8 million voters are registered. If no candidate wins more than 50 percent in the first round, Malians will vote in a second round on Aug. 12.
Other candidates include 66-year-old Cheick Modibo Diarra, the former prime minister of the transitional government after the 2012 coup. The astrophysicist who also holds U.S. citizenship has worked with NASA, notably on the Mars Pathfinder mission.
The 58-year-old Aliou Boubacar Diallo of the ADP-Maliba party is a gold mine-owning businessman who has the support of an influential religious leader, Cherif M'Bouye Haidara. Diallo is popular for advocating the economic reintegration of former jihadists.
Last week, however, suspected extremists attacked a Diallo campaign team not far from the Mauritanian border.
Experts say Mali is less secure than in 2013 when French-backed forces pushed extremists in the north from their strongholds. Deadly attacks by extremists have become more brazen in recent months as they take aim at French and Malian forces and a U.N. peacekeeping mission and move south toward the capital.
A more assertive response by Mali's security forces to the attacks has led to accusations by human rights groups of extrajudicial killings. In some areas, neighbours have turned on each other, amid suspicions of influence by extremist groups.
Oumar Toure, a leader of a local civic association in Mopti, said things have shifted there.
"The current president IBK considers Mopti region his enemy, and he left it ... that's why all the insecurity of the north has come to settle here," said Toure. "In Mopti, it's the law of the strongest."
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called on Malians to maintain a peaceful course and said in a statement Saturday he was encouraged by a peaceful campaigning period, despite security challenges in the north and centre.
"The Secretary-General urges all political actors in Mali to commit to making this poll a peaceful, free and transparent process, and to resolve any possible dispute through the appropriate institutions in accordance with the law," his statement said.
Meanwhile, Iyad Ag Ghaley, the leader of al-Qaeda's Mali branch known by its French acronym JNIM, sent a message on Telegram and Twitter. He said that while many anticipated he would speak about elections, he referred to warnings sent in February.
"Here I suffice with saying that these elections are nothing but panting after a mirage, and our people will reap out of it nothing but illusions," he wrote, adding that elections are "a foundation for a system that contradicts our glorious Shariah."