Aliou Diallo, leader of the Democratic Alliance for Peace, casts his vote at a polling station during the presidential election in Bamako, Mali yesterday. Picture: Reuters
BAMAKO: Voting started slowly yesterday as people in Mali headed 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 organisation.

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 counter- terror operations have complicated what President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita hopes would 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 criticised the president for not addressing Mali’s rising insecurity.

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 promised a smooth vote, but many in Mali are still worried.

More than 8million voters are registered.

If no candidate wins more than 50% in the first round, Malians would have to vote in a second round on August 12.

UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres called on the people of Mali to maintain a peaceful course during the election, and said in a statement on Saturday he was encouraged by a peaceful campaigning period, despite security challenges in the north and centre of the country.

He urged all political actors 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”. - AP