Malians turned out in large numbers to vote on Sunday in a presidential election they hope will provide a fresh start for the West African nation after more than a year of turmoil, war and an army coup.

From the lush, bustling riverside capital, Bamako, to the northern desert town of Timbuktu, voters crammed into schools turned into polling stations for the day, protected by Malian, French and United Nations forces.

A successful vote on Sunday would mark a major step towards recovery after a March 2012 coup followed by the occupation of the desert north by separatist Tuareg rebels and al Qaeda-linked fighters. Months ago the Islamists were marching south, until French troops arrived in January and defeated them, scattering them into the deserts and mountains.

High turnout out at 21,000 polling stations would breathe life into Mali’s 20-year-old democracy, whose frailties were exposed by the coup last year, reports Reuters.

“I came to choose a president capable of managing the country,” said Mamoutou Samake, 46, an agricultural engineer and the first to vote at a polling centre in Bamako’s Banankabougou neighbourhood.

“The priority of the new president must be to re-establish peace and security. The rest will come with time,” he said.

After some initial delays in deploying voter material, voters carrying ID cards formed long lines in the dirt courtyards of schools by mid-morning. Many women, most in colourful traditional dress, brought their children to polling stations.

“I have worked in eight elections and I have never seen this level of turnout,” said Mahamar Maiga, an election worker.

Turnout for a presidential election in Mali has never exceeded 40 percent.

In the northern desert town of Timbuktu, seized by al Qaeda-linked rebels last year, Malian soldiers manned checkpoints. People turned out in large numbers despite a threat from an Islamist group to attack polling stations. By early afternoon, no incident had been reported.

“We are still scared. We don’t know who is who, there could be jihadists among the population,” said Maty Balkissa Toure, a 25-year-old Timbuktu resident. “But we are proud of being Malian and risking our security to come and vote.”

In Kidal, where just 30,000 votes are at stake but the stand-off with Tuareg MNLA rebels has not yet been resolved, residents reported high security and a much lower turn out. A handful of supporters of the MNLA rebel group led a small protest against the vote despite the group saying it supported elections.

Mali’s 6.8 million registered voters will choose from 26 men and one women. The field includes two former prime ministers – Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, known universally as IBK, and Modibo Sidibe – who are expected to be among the top finishers.

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