BAMAKO (AFP) - Preliminary results collated by journalists in polling stations gave a clear early lead to former premier Ibrahim Boubacar Keita in Mali's presidential elections, sparking celebrations among his supporters early Monday.
The unofficial projections, based on the accounts of reporters watching counts across the country, suggest that 69-year-old Keita, known universally as IBK, could even cause an upset and win the first round outright.
Analysts have characterised the election as a two-horse race, with Mr Keita a frontrunner alongside Soumaila Cisse, 63, a former finance minister and erstwhile chairman of the Commission of the West African Economic and Monetary Union.
Thousands of Mr Keita's supporters massed on his party headquarters in the capital Bamako, as news of his apparent lead was broadcast on local radio, an AFP correspondent at the scene reported.
"IBK - the man we need", they chanted. One supporter shouted: "It is the people who have spoken!" A fast-growing crowd also gathered at Mr Keita's home and convoys of cars circulated, horns blaring in an celebration at what his supporters were calling victory.
Voting took place without incident, despite threats ahead of the polls by an armed Islamist group with links to Al-Qaeda.
Independent Malian election observers reported a strong turnout in the south.
In the northern regions occupied by Tuareg rebels and Islamic extremists for much of last year, the vote was supervised by UN peacekeepers, the Malian army and 3,200 French soldiers.
The French forces are still in the region after leading the military offensive in January to reclaim the north from the rebels.