Mali votes in runoff election amid heavy security presence
Soldiers search voters in presidential poll in which Ciss is challenging incumbent Keta
Millions of Malians are voting in an unprecedented runoff presidential election that has been overshadowed by widespread allegations of fraud and the threat of Islamist extremist violence.
The current president, Ibrahim Boubacar Keta, is the favourite, having won 41% of the vote in the first round two weeks ago while the challenger, Soumala Ciss, took only 18%.
Extra security forces have been deployed after about 250,000 people, 3% of the electorate, were unable to vote because of insecurity during the first round. Armed attacks and other incidents were recorded at about a fifth of polling stations.
Mali is key in the battle against Islamic extremism in the Sahel region and and is central to efforts to restrict illegal immigration to Europe.
French, US and UN troops have been fighting militants in the unstable and impoverished country since 2012 when ethnic and Islamist groups seized swaths of territory and the city of Timbuktu.
Government authority is still weak in many places and observers say militants, some linked to al-Qaida and Islamic State, have regrouped since French troops intervened in 2013 to push them back. They have been expanding their influence across Malis desert north and into the fertile centre.
The civil society website Malilink recorded 932 attacks in the first half of 2018, almost double the figure for all of 2017 and triple that for 2015.
Three members of an alleged commando cell, suspected of involvement in a robbery that left three people dead in 2016, are accused of plotting targeted attacks.
Jihadists have worked to stoke intercommunal conflict. Killings along ethnic lines have claimed hundreds of civilian lives this year, including at least 11 last week in the Mopti region.
But as voting got under way early on Sunday, no serious incidents were reported. Soldiers ran body checks on voters waiting in line under rainy skies in Bamako to cast their ballots.
Dramane Camara, 31, was the first to vote at one polling station in a school in Bamako.
I voted without problem. I came to fulfil my duty as a citizen, Camara said. I expect the new president to solve the problem of the north, which is peace. Because the return of peace means the return of NGOs, investors, so creating jobs.
The 73-year-old Keta, who is seeking a second five-year term, called for a peaceful day and urged people not to respond to any provocation as he voted in Bamako.
I pledge that all the difficulties we faced are now behind us, he told cheering supporters.
The first round on 29 July was also marred by opposition charges of fraud. Ciss, 68, has accused Keta of stuffing ballot boxes in areas of the country that are most unstable and where the rule of law is weakest.
The former finance minister blames Keta for the worsening violence and has accused his government of rampant corruption. He insisted on Friday he could turn things around on polling day, warning the status quo would only bring chaos in a torn nation.
But Ciss failed to unite the opposition behind him, and first-round challengers have either backed the president or refused to tell followers which way to vote.
Few Malians attended a string of planned marches and protests called for by opposition leaders in Bamako ahead of the runoff vote.
At his final rally on Friday, Keta known as IBK struck a confident tone.
Some people were sceptical that these elections could take place. Some called on me to withdraw, he said above the din of his supporters vuvuzelas. Let them understand that we had the capacity to organise credible elections and we have done so.
The exact turnout in last months voting is unclear, though the government has said only 43% of Malians cast a vote. Partly this was because of security fears, but analysts say it can also be explained by voters disillusionment with corruption and the increasing gap between them and elites in the capital.
One reason for the relative apathy among voters may be the similarities between the two candidates. Keta, who was educated at the Sorbonne in Paris, and Ciss, a software engineer and economist, are veteran politicians and part of a well-entrenched political establishment.
Both are from the same generation of leaders, serving in government together in the 1990s. Both have been accused of corruption and neither has outlined detailed policies to resolve Malis problems. Keta has a patchy record, with poverty growing despite 5% annual growth. But Cisss promise to speak to the people of Mali has not convinced.
Despite the militant threat, Malian polls have generally gone peacefully, without the post-election violence common to many countries in the region.