Malians defied Islamist death threats to vote on Sunday for a President expected to usher in a dawn of peace and stability in the conflict-scarred nation.

Voters have a choice of 27 candidates in the first election since last year’s military coup upended one of the region’s most stable democracies as Islamist militants hijacked a separatist uprising to seize a vast swathe in the desert north of the country.

The ballot opened under heavy security after one of the main Islamist armed groups in northern Mali said on Saturday it would “strike” polling stations.

“The polling stations and other voting places for what they are calling the elections will be targeted by mujahedeen strikes,” said the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) in a statement carried by Mauritania’s ANI news agency.

It did not specify what form the attacks would take but the group warned Malian Muslims to “stay away from the polls”.

In a polling station at a school in Bamako, hundreds of voters had been queuing for more than an hour to cast their ballots.

“We are tired of bad governance. I’d urge the candidates to accept the results of our vote,” said machine operator Kalifa Traore (56).

Though the three-week campaign ended on Friday without major incident, it played out in the shadow of violence in the north that has raised doubts over Mali’s readiness to deliver a safe and credible election.

Louis Michel, the head of the European Union observation mission, sounded a note of optimism on Friday, saying conditions had been met for a credible first round. Haidara Aichata Cisse, the only woman, goes head-to-head with 26 men, including four past Premiers. — AFP