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GAO, Mali (AP) - Malians voted Sunday in legislative elections amid heavy security, highlighting fears that a vote seen as the last step in restoring constitutional rule in the battle-scarred country could be sabotaged by rebel attacks.
In the confusion following a March 2012 military 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 that largely ousted the militants. But the region has seen an increase in violence in recent weeks, underscoring the persistent challenges in cementing security gains.
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.
"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."
In the troubled northern town of Kidal, three people were injured when supporters of the Tuareg National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad, a separatist group of the traditionally nomadic people of the region, threw stones at voters, prompting U.N. peacekeepers to intervene, said resident Mohamed Ag Mossa.
In Mali's northern Timbuktu region, 10 ballot boxes were stolen by unidentified armed men, according to a Malian security source who insisted on anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.
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."
The region has been on edge following the Nov. 2 slaying of two journalists from Radio France Internationale who were reporting in Kidal. The lead suspect in that attack has previous ties to al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.
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. 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. The turnout appeared to have fallen 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.
Keita has emphasized the need to unify the country, creating a new cabinet post dedicated to reconciliation and development of the north.
"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."
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.
Mamouni Soumano, a Malian political analyst, said the apparent low turnout would likely benefit the opposition, necessitating runoff elections in much of the country.
A runoff vote, if necessary, will be held on Dec. 15.