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 mark the troubled west African nation's first steps to recovery after it was upended by a military coup in March 2012, 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."
Turnout looked low however in Bamako, sparking fears that voters would be scared away by a recent upsurge in violence by al-Qaeda-linked rebels against African troops tasked with election security alongside French troops and the Malian army.
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 north-eastern 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 said.
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.
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%, 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 campaign failed to capture the imagination of the electorate and many analysts in Bamako are expecting a further slide in turnout.
An AFP correspondent waited half an hour at a polling station in the Hamdallaye district of Bamako before seeing the first voter arrive.
In Koulikoro, 50km 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 before the election, it makes you worry that there might be attacks in other parts of Mali," a nurse said.
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, polling opened without incident in the Gao and Timbuktu regions, with seats in Kidal decided in the first round.
"The operation here in Timbuktu is going well. For a start, women are the most numerous voters," said the city's mayor, Halle Ousmane Cisse.
"Fifty-two polling stations are open. Election materials are in place. It is calm here for the moment, and this is very important."
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 said in Timbuktu and Gao that locals were frightened by the possibility of Islamist attacks.
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.
He was among the fiercest opponents of former junta chief Amadou Sanogo, who has recently been charged with murder, complicity to murder and carrying out kidnappings after overthrowing the democratically elected government in March last year.