Bamako: Malians voted on Sunday in parliamentary elections intended to cap the troubled west African nation`s return to democracy but overshadowed by the threat of Islamist reprisals.
The polls mark Mali`s first steps to recovery after it was plunged into chaos by a military coup in March last year, finalising a process begun with the election of its first post-conflict president in August.
Some 6.5 million Malians are eligible to cast ballots for a new national assembly, with more than 1,000 candidates running for 147 seats.
But voting takes place amid an upsurge in violence by al Qaeda-linked rebels who stalk the vast northern desert, an ever-present danger to French and African troops who are tasked with providing security for the election alongside the Malian army.
French security forces witnessed their first attack in the capital Bamako on Friday, when a police officer working with the army was lucky to escape serious injury after a gunman believed to be influenced by Islamists opened fire on him.
A day earlier militants had shelled the northern city of Gao, and although their rockets fell harmlessly short of the main urban centre, the attack underlined the continuing security threat.
Al Qaeda-linked insurgents ousted by French and African troops in January from the northern towns they had occupied last year resumed their deadly insurgency on September 28, after a lull of several months.
Since then, a dozen civilians as well as Malian and Chadian soldiers in the United Nations` MINUSMA peacekeeping mission have been killed in the country`s vast desert north.
Much of the worry ahead of the polls has been focused on the largely lawless region of Kidal, occupied for five months by ethnic Tuareg separatists until a ceasefire accord signed in June allowed in the Malian army.
In a grisly reminder for the West of the ongoing security crisis, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) on November 2 kidnapped and shot dead two French radio journalists who had come to Kidal, the capital of the region, 1,500 kilometres (930 miles) northeast of Bamako.