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Voters go to the polls in troubled Mali

Officials count ballots at a polling station in Bamako on November 20, 2016 © AFP / Habibou Kouyate

BAMAKO, Nov 21 – Mali voted in its first elections since 2013, with turnout low as security jitters remained elevated despite an international military intervention.

Voters are electing 12,000 councillors across Mali as the government wrestles with implementing a 2015 peace deal and warding off the stubborn jihadist threat in the north.

French troops were deployed in 2013 to repel Al-Qaeda-aligned jihadists who had overrun several northern towns, joining forces with Tuareg-led rebels. Some 11,000 UN military and police followed, but the jihadists were never defeated, merely displaced.

The election — being held two years later than scheduled — coincides with the first anniversary of a jihadist attack on the Radisson Blu hotel in the capital Bamako that left 20 people dead, many of them foreigners.

Malians check for their names on a voters’ list at a polling station in Gao during municipal elections on November 20, 2016 © AFP

“These elections have been delayed four times. That’s enough,” said President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita after casting his ballot in the first vote to be held since his own election.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon called Saturday for a peaceful vote in areas “where political and security conditions allow” in a nation still under a state of emergency.

He encouraged the government to work with other parties “to defuse tensions that may arise before and after the poll”.

Residents and officials reported low turnout in the capital and a string of disruptions to voting in northern and central Mali.

In Timbuktu, unknown attackers seized and burned electoral papers in multiple raids.

Timbuktu Governor Adama Kansaye said there was a good turnout in his town, but noted that “armed groups were roaming in several municipalities” of the Goudam area where voting could not take place, local media reported.

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Timbuktu’s fabled shrines were destroyed during the jihadist takeover in 2012.

Voters are electing 12,000 councillors across Mali as the government wrestles with implementing a peace deal and warding off the stubborn jihadist threat in the north © AFP / Habibou Kouyate

Oumar Moussa, resident of Timbuktu’s working class Sareykeyna neighbourhood, said there had been “huge turnout” in his area. “There are concerns, but it’s gone well so far,” he told AFP.

Residents were also not voting in Kidal, bastion of the former rebels of the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA), the Tuareg group that runs the northern town.

Several hundred people demonstrated there against the holding of elections, burning Malian and UN flags, according to a foreign military source in the town.

The CMA had denounced the government’s “pig-headedness” in organising the vote before northern interim authorities are set up as per the peace deal, and ahead of the return of “tens of millions of refugees and displaced people” who would be affected by the outcome.

The vote was also cancelled in numerous villages in the neighbouring Gao region.

Opposition candidate Saibou Barry was kidnapped Saturday morning in the central town of Koro, with his party saying his car was found burned and that he had been driven to “an unknown destination”.

It was hoped that last year’s peace deal between rebels, the government and loyalist militias would bring stability to the north, but since then rival armed groups have repeatedly violated the ceasefire.

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