BAMAKO: Malians voted Sunday in a crucial presidential election as attacks disrupted polling in areas already beset by deadly ethnic and jihadist violence.
Counting has started in some of the 23,000 polling stations which closed at 1800 GMT. First results are expected within 48 hours and the official outcome is set to follow on Friday at the latest.
Despite the deployment of 30,000 security personnel throughout the country, several incidents were reported in the north and centre.
Rockets were fired on the UN mission (MINUSMA) camp in Aguelhok, in the northeast, according to a UN security source who added that "there are no casualties and the rockets did not fall into the camp."
Elsewhere, the burning of polling stations and violence against election officials halted the vote.
In total, 105 polling stations stayed closed because of security concerns, according to state TV ORTM citing the ministry of security.
President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, 73, leads a crowded field of 24 candidates -- including one woman -- bidding for re-election to the post he has held since 2013. He voted in Sebenicoro, near the capital Bamako, surrounded by journalists and supporters.
Keita's record on security has been a dominant theme, with opponents, including several former ministers, accusing him of incompetence.
The international community hopes the poll will strengthen a 2015 accord that Mali, a linchpin state in the troubled Sahel region, sees as the cornerstone for peace.
On the campaign trail, Keita -- commonly known by his initials IBK -- highlighted the achievements of the peace agreement between the government, government-allied groups and Tuareg former rebels to fight jihadist fighters in the country's north.
Polling station, ballots burned
Armed groups severely disrupted voting in central Mali's Mopti region. In Fatoma village, voting was halted after election officials were assaulted, according to Malian observers and the regional governor.
Violence also struck the village of Gandamia, further east, where polling stations were destroyed and staff were attacked, the sources said.
"Four villages could not vote after armed groups banned state administrators" in the same region, the mayor of Bourema Napo town told AFP.
And there was no voting in the village of Lafia, in the northern Timbuktu region, after the ballot boxes were set on fire, local authorities said.
"Overnight Saturday, armed men arrived at the town hall where the ballot boxes and electoral material were held," a local official told AFP.
The source added the boxes were burned after men he said were jihadists fired shots into the sky. "One of them said 'God does not like elections'."
Violence also marred the lead-up to the vote, despite the presence of 15,000 UN peacekeepers and 4,500 French troops and a heralded five-nation anti-terror G5 Sahel force. A state of emergency will enter its fourth year in November.
More than 300 civilians have died in ethnic clashes this year, according to UN figures and an AFP toll.
Many deaths have occurred in the Mopti region involving the Fulani nomadic herder community and Bambara and Dogon farmers.
Jihadist violence, meanwhile, has spread from northern Mali to the centre and south of the country and spilled over into neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger, often inflaming communal conflicts.
The main Al-Qaeda-linked jihadist 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.
In Mali's north, where the state is barely present, armed groups who signed the peace accord helped to ensure security.
Main challenger Cisse
Voter participation was low throughout the day, according to electoral observers and AFP journalists. Official participation figures are yet to be published.
Turnout has never exceeded 50 percent in a presidential election first round since the advent of democracy in 1992.
Observer teams are in place from the European Union, the African Union, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the International Organisation of La Francophonie.
"The European observer mission calls for the Malian authorities to publish the list of polling stations where voting did not take place," Cecile Kyenge, the mission's head, told reporters late Sunday.
In Mbera, the world's biggest Malian refugee camp in southeastern Mauritania, more than 7,000 voters were registered at 28 polling stations, Ahmedou Ag Boukhary, a camp official, told AFP.
Keita's challengers are led by Soumaila Cisse, 68, a former finance and economy minister, who lost by a wide margin in the second round of the 2013 election.
Cisse urged all sectors of society to prioritise better health care and education as motors of development, while rejecting all-pervasive corruption.
Cisse's team have warned of possible election fraud, claiming that there are two electoral lists and hundreds of fake polling stations.
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.