Bamako - Malians voted on Sunday in the second round of parliamentary elections intended to cap the nation's return to democracy but overshadowed by the deaths of two UN peacekeepers in an Islamist attack.
The polls marked the troubled west African nation's first steps to recovery after it was upended by a military coup in March last year, finalising a process begun with the election of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita in August.
"This second round establishes the recovery on a foundation of legitimacy in this country. It will give us more strength, more power to say 'Mali' and that's what Mali needs," Keita said after casting his ballot in the capital Bamako.
"What has been done has put us in a position to say Mali everywhere with honour and dignity, without any hang-ups."
There were no serious incidents during 10 hours of voting but polling stations were reporting turnout as low as 15 percent as voters were scared away by a recent upsurge in rebel attacks against African troops tasked with election security alongside French and Malian soldiers.
Two Senegalese UN peacekeepers were killed and seven wounded on Saturday when a suicide bomber ploughed his explosives-laden car into a bank they were guarding in the northeastern rebel bastion of Kidal.
Sultan Ould Badi, a Malian jihadist linked to several armed groups, said the attack was in retaliation for African countries' support of a French-led military operation launched in January against Islamist rebels in northern Mali, which the local population calls "Azawad".
"We are going to respond all across Azawad and in other lands... with other operations against France's crusades," he told AFP by telephone.
The French army has been carrying out an operation against Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) north of the desert caravan town Timbuktu over the past week, killing 19 militants, according to French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius.Voting a 'moral duty'
In the first round of the election on November 24, just 19 of the national assembly's 147 seats were allocated, with turnout at 38.6 percent, a drop of almost 13 percentage points from the first round of the presidential vote.
After the first round of the parliamentary election, Louis Michel, chief of the European Union observation mission, called on "all political actors" to turn out in the second round.
"In the specific context of Mali, voting is not only a right, it is a moral duty," he said.
But the Citizen's Centre for Electoral Observation (POCE), an independent Malian organisation that deployed 3,300 observers across the nation, reported a weak turnout Sunday among the country's electorate of almost seven million.
"The voting took place in good conditions and in a calm climate in the different centres observed. However, the POCE notes that turnout is low in most polling centres," it said in a statement at midday.
An AFP correspondent waited half an hour at a polling station in the Hamdallaye district of Bamako before seeing the first voter arrive and the centre announced an estimated turnout of just 15 percent minutes before it closed.
In Koulikoro, 50 kilometres (37 miles) southwest of Bamako, many residents told AFP they were not intending to participate because they were unimpressed with the candidates and feared Islamist violence.
"When you hear of an attack in Kidal the day before the election, it makes you worry that there might be attacks in other parts of Mali," a nurse told AFP.
Turnout looked poor in six polling stations visited by AFP.
The second round of the parliamentary election is Mali's fourth nationwide ballot since July and other locals put the lack of interest down to voting fatigue.
In the restive north, voting took place without incident in the Gao and Timbuktu regions, with seats in Kidal decided in the first round.
Maiga Seyma, the deputy mayor of Gao, said turnout appeared to be good in its 88 polling stations and the voting had opened in an atmosphere of calm, although residents told AFP in Timbuktu and Gao that locals were frightened by the possibility of Islamist attacks.
The outcome of the election is expected to be announced by the government before the end of Friday.
Keita's Rally for Mali (RPM) party has vowed to deliver "a comfortable majority" to smooth the path for reforms he plans to put in place to rebuild Mali's stagnant economy and ease the simmering ethnic tensions in the north.
But analysts have speculated that the RPM may have to form a coalition with the Alliance for Democracy in Mali, one of the country's most established parties, which was split during the presidential polls between Keita and his rival, Soumaila Cisse.
Cisse, who is vying to represent the Union for the Republic and Democracy (URD) in his home region of Timbuktu, aims to become the leader of the parliamentary opposition.