GAO, Mali (AP) - Malians voted Sunday in legislative elections amid heavy security highlighting fears the poll could be sabotaged by rebel attacks.
The vote is the last step in restoring constitutional rule in Mali following a military coup in March 2012. In the confusion following the coup rebel groups, including Tuareg separatists and Islamic extremists linked to al-Qaida, took control of the country's north, prompting France to launch a military intervention in January.
United Nations peacekeepers and Malian soldiers outnumbered voters in the northern city of Gao when polling stations opened at 8 a.m. on Sunday, though the number of voters increased closer to midday.
The turnout appeared, however, to fall short of Mali's peaceful presidential election held in July and August, when Malians elected Ibrahim Boubacar Keita to lead the country in a contest that was decided in a runoff.
"Today we have noticed that participation is weak," said Gao prefect Seydou Timbely. "There weren't enough means invested in encouraging the population to come out and vote. But we'll be waiting here this afternoon, hoping the people will come."
Northern Mali has seen an increase in violence in recent weeks underscoring persistent challenges to the region's security. On Thursday, several rockets aimed at a military post landed in Gao. A military official said they were the same type of rockets used by the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, the al-Qaida-inspired group that controlled the city last year and imposed harsh Shariah rule.
The region was already on edge following the Nov. 2 slaying of two journalists from Radio France Internationale who were reporting in the northern city of Kidal. The lead suspect in that attack has previous ties to al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.
On Friday, a French military adviser was fired upon by a gunman waiting outside his house in a rare attack on foreigners in Mali's capital, Bamako.
Several voters in Gao said the recent insecurity was on their minds when they cast their ballots.
"I voted for the presidential majority because I want to continue the changes begun since the arrival of IBK in power," said 26-year-old Aminata Toure, referring to the new president by his initials.
"The insecurity doesn't give me any fear. To the contrary, it pushes me to come out to vote so we can bring an end to the insecurity," Toure said.
Around 6.5 million Malians are eligible to vote in elections for 147 seats contested by more than 1,000 candidates.
The European Union has deployed more than 100 observers in polling stations throughout much of the country.
In Kidal, three people were injured when supporters of the Tuareg National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad threw stones at voters waiting in line outside a polling station, prompting U.N. peacekeepers to intervene, said Kidal resident Mohamed Ag Mossa.
There were also scattered reports of registration problems early Sunday.
"I didn't see my photo or my name on the list," said Bintou Maiga, who was turned away from her assigned polling station in Gao. "I'm disappointed now because I wasn't able to vote."
A runoff vote, if necessary, will be held on Dec. 15.
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