Mali to vote in run-off election with president Keita favourite to win

* Keita seeking second five-year term

* First round vote was disrupted by violence

* Jihadist and ethnic attacks are surging in the north and centre

By Tiemoko Diallo

BAMAKO, Aug 12 (Reuters) – Malians vote on Sunday in a run-off election and President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita is favourite to beat Soumaila Cisse even though ethnic and militant violence has surged during his tenure.

Keita took 41 percent of the vote in last month’s first round against nearly 18 percent for Cisse, a former finance minister and the main opposition leader.

The poll was marred by armed attacks and other security incidents that disrupted about a fifth of polling places and the threat of violence could again dampen turnout on Sunday.

The chaotic first round was a reminder that militants, some linked to al Qaeda and Islamic State, have regrouped since a French intervention in 2013 and are now expanding their influence across the desert north and into the fertile centre.

Civil society website Malilink recorded 932 attacks in the first half of 2018, almost double that for all of 2017 and triple 2015. Their activities in Mali and its Sahel neighbours have unnerved Western powers like France and the United States who have deployed thousands of troops across the region.

Jihadists are also stoking inter-communal conflict, mostly between herders and pastoralists. Tit-for-tat killings along ethnic lines have claimed hundreds of civilian lives this year, including at least 11 last week in the central Mopti region.

Cisse, 68, blames Keita, 73, for the violence and accuses his government of rampant corruption and voting fraud in July.

“Continuing on the path followed by those who had the heavy responsibility to preside over the destiny of our country would lead us closer to chaos and the abyss,” Cisse warned at his final campaign rally on Friday.

Keita rejects Cisse’s charges and the constitutional court upheld the first round results.

Keita’s better-than-expected first-round showing and Cisse’s failure to win endorsements from the third and fourth-place finishers augur well for the incumbent. Keita beat Cisse in a 2013 run-off and is seeking a second five-year term.

At his final rally in the capital Bamako on Friday, Keita struck a confident tone.

“Some people were sceptical that these elections could take place. Some called on me to withdraw,” he said above the din of his supporters’ vuvuzelas. “Let them understand that we had the capacity to organise credible elections and we have done so.”

Despite the militant threat, Malian polls have generally gone peacefully without the post-election violence common to many countries in the region. (Additional reporting by Cheick Amadou Diouara; Writing by Aaron Ross Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg)



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