By Tiemoko Diallo
Voters stayed away in droves from Mali's run-off presidential election due to fears over security and simple apathy, but the voting process was generally fair despite a number of incidents, election monitors said on Monday.
The vote pitted President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita against opposition leader Soumaila Cisse after an inconclusive first round last month, when Keita won about 41 percent of the vote.
Official second-round results are not expected for a few days but Keita - known as IBK - is predicted to seal a second term in office.
Cisse, who had accused the government camp of cheating in the first round, on Monday again alleged fraud and said he had won.
"We have a large lead. We do not accept that our voice is stolen," he told a news conference in the capital Bamako.
Threats by jihadist militants forced nearly 500 polling stations - about two percent of the total - to stay closed during Sunday's run-off, the government said. One election official was killed in northern Niafunke, in Timbuktu region.
Security fears severely dampened the turnout, which a civil society group, the Mali Citizen Observation Pool (POCIM) estimated at just over 27 percent of the eight million registered voters. Turnout is usually about 40 percent in Malian elections.
Mali is high on the list of Western powers' security concerns due to the presence of militant groups with links to al Qaeda and Islamic State. A successful election is seen as vital in the effort to restore stability as the government tackles the resurgent Islamist threat and outbreaks of ethnic strife.
The vast nation is also a main transit route for illegal migrants trying to reach Europe, a concern in European Union capitals.
As votes were being counted on Monday, Cisse, who heads the Union for the Republic and Democracy (URD) party, called on his supporters to challenge Keita's expected victory.
"We will not accept that a president wins through fraud. And we will show that there is fraud," he said. "This fight is in your hands, dear supporters... Let's get engaged to save Mali"
But Mohamed Dileita, head of an observation mission from the Paris-based OIF, a federation of French-speaking nations, said: "Everyone has more or less accepted the verdict... the vote took place."
"At the time I speak, at least, it is a calm election, credible. At the moment we do not see any reason why it changes," Dileita told Radio France Internationale.
Mali's constitutional court rejected Cisse's claims of fraud in the first round, held on July 29.
LACK OF ENTHUSIASM
Most of the shuttered polling stations were in the Timbuktu region and the conflict-hit central region of Mopti, Security Minister Salif Traore told reporters.
In 2013 French troops pushed Islamist militants out of areas they had seized in the desert north, but they have since regrouped and routinely attack civilians, Malian soldiers and U.N. peacekeepers.
Thousands of troops had been deployed across Mali to protect voters on Sunday after widespread violence in the first round.
POCIM said in its report: "Voters did not mobilize much to fulfill their civic duty."
"The reasons given relate to the security problem and the lack of enthusiasm following the publication of the results of the first round."
POCIM estimated turnout in the capital Bamako at just 26 percent, while in northern Timbuktu, which was in the hands of jihadists just five years ago, it was 40 percent. Turnout in Mopti was 24 percent.
It reported isolated incidents of ballot stealing and attacks on polling stations, including two which were torched.
A report by an EU observer mission will be important for the credibility of the election, though it was not clear on Monday when it would be published.
On Sunday the EU mission said the voting had passed peacefully for the most part, although it had no monitors in Mopti, Kidal and Timbuktu regions due to the security threat.
(Additional reporting by Aaron Ross, Writing by Angus MacSwan in Dakar, Editing by Gareth Jones)