BAMAKO - Mali went to the polls on Sunday, with President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita seeking a second 5-year term in the fragile Sahel state beset by deadly ethnic and jihadist violence.
After a campaign marred by violent incidents, 23,000 polling stations opened at 0800 GMT and are scheduled to close at 1800 GMT.
"I have my voting card, I am going to vote for my country and for my favourite president," said Moriba Camara, a 35-year-old teacher, in the Sebenicoro district of the capital Bamako.
"I know there is going to be no cheating. I trust the authorities," he added, as a few voters started queuing around him.
Preident Keita, 73, leads a crowded field of 24 candidates -- just one of them a woman -- bidding for the presidency which he has held since 2013. He voted in Sebenicoro, in the capital, surrounded by journalists and supporters.
His record on security has been a dominant theme, with opponents, including several former ministers, accusing him of incompetence.
On the campaign trail, Keita -- commonly known by his initials IBK -- highlighted the achievements of a 2015 peace agreement between the government, government-allied groups and former Tuareg rebels to fight jihadi fighters in the country's north.
But the main Al-Qaeda-linked jhadist alliance made its presence felt on the final day of campaigning Friday, dubbing the election a "mirage" that would do nothing for the Malian people.
"These elections are nothing other than the pursuit of a mirage and our peoples will reap nothing but illusions, as they are used to doing," said alliance leader Iyad Ag Ghaly.
Ag Ghaly, the key figure in the jihadists' operation to take control of much of the north of the country in 2012, leads the Group to Support Islam and Muslims (GSIM), formed from a merger of several militant groups.
IBK 'unbreakable bond'
One supporter attending IBK's final rally, Cheickna Traore, a young entrepreneur, insisted there was an "unbreakable bond" between with the incumbent president and that there was no real alternative.
"Nobody can sort Mali out in five years. Nobody. If IBK goes then the next president will have to start again from square one. We don't want that, we want continuity."
Violence continues to flare, even with the presence of 15,000 UN peacekeepers and 4,500 French troops and a heralded five-nation anti-terror force, the G5 Sahel. A state of emergency enters its fourth year in November.
More than 300 civilians have died in ethnic clashes this year, according to UN figures.
Many deaths have occurred in the central region of Mopti, involving the Fulani nomadic herder community and Bambara and Dogon farmers.
Four days before polling day, armed men -- described as Dogon hunters -- killed 17 Fulani civilians in the village of Somena, Fulani representatives said Friday.
Jihadist violence, meanwhile, has spread from northern Mali to the centre and south and spilled over into neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger, often inflaming communal conflicts.
- Security and observers -
Amid concerns that the vote could not be held in some restive areas, more than 30,000 personnel have been drafted to ensure security.
The European Union, the African Union (AU), the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the International Organisation of La Francophonie (OIF) are fielding election observers.
Keita's challengers are headed by Soumaila Cisse, 68, a former finance and economy minister, who lost by a large margin in the second round of the 2013 election.
His team have warned of possible fraud, claiming that there are two electoral lists and hundreds of fake polling stations.
For Cisse, Mali "is dying". In the centre of the country, "there is no administration, more than 500 schools have closed, no more health centres, investment in water", he said in an interview Friday.
Cisse blamed recent bouts of inter-communal violence on "poverty, first of all, which has risen these past few years. That creates tension, difficulties, competition for resources".
He also slammed "a real lack of state authority", meaning "some citizens end up meting out their own justice and that is very dangerous".
He termed the continuing problem of jihadist violence as a global, rather than African problem and urged the next government to apply the 2015 peace accord.
The first poll results are expected within 48 hours, with official results following on Friday at the latest.
First round turnout is typically below 50 percent in Mali which has some eight million voters.
If no candidate gains more than 50 percent of the vote in Sunday's first round, a second round will take place on August 12.