BAMAKO (AFP) - Malians defied Islamist death threats to vote on Sunday for a president expected to usher in a new dawn of peace and stability as polling stations opened across the conflict-scarred nation.
Voters have a choice of 27 candidates in the first election since last year's military coup upended one of the region's most stable democracies, as Islamist militants hijacked a separatist uprising to seize much of the country.
The ballot opened at 8am (4pm Singapore time) under heavy security after one of the main Islamist armed groups in northern Mali said on Saturday it would "strike" polling stations.
"The polling stations and other voting places for what they are calling the elections will be targeted by mujahedeen strikes," the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) said in a statement carried by neighbouring Mauritania's ANI news agency.
It did not specify what form the attacks would take.
The group warned Malian Muslims to "stay away from the polls".
Although the three-week campaign ended on Friday without major incident, it played out in the shadow of violence in the north that has raised doubts over Mali's readiness to deliver a safe and credible election.
Critics at home and abroad have argued that Mali, under pressure from the international community, is rushing to the polls and risking a botched election that could do more harm than good.
But Louis Michel, the head of the European Union observation mission, sounded a note of optimism Friday, saying conditions had been met for a credible first round.
"I believe that these elections can take place in a context and in conditions that are acceptable and do not allow for a distortion or an abuse of the result," he told reporters in the capital Bamako.
Much of the worry ahead of the polls has been focused on Kidal, occupied for five months by Tuareg separatists until a ceasefire accord allowed the Malian army earlier this month to provide security.
Clashes between Tuaregs and black Africans in the run-up to the election left four people dead. And gunmen thought to be from the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) have kidnapped five polling officials 200 kilometres north of Kidal.
The ballot is the first since the military mutiny in March last year that toppled democratically elected president Amadou Toumani Toure. The ensuing confusion helped the MNLA, MUJAO and other groups allied to Al-Qaeda to seize northern Mali.
On the eve of the election, acting president Dioncounda Traore, in a televised address, urged Malians to ensure a massive turnout in a country where the participation rate is usually around 40 percent. Traore himself is not a candidate.
A UN peacekeeping mission integrating more than 6,000 African soldiers into its ranks is charged with ensuring security Sunday and in the months after the election. By the end of the year it will have grown to 11,200 troops and 1,400 police.
The deployment allows France to start withdrawing most of the 4,500 troops it sent to Mali in January to stop the Islamists from advancing towards Bamako from their northern strongholds.
Haidara Aichata Cisse, the only woman in the race, goes head-to-head with 26 men, including past premiers Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, Cheick Modibo Diarra, Modibo Sidibe and Soumana Sacko.
Keita is seen as the main frontrunner alongside Soumaila Cisse, a former chairman of the Commission of the West African Monetary Union.