Voters peaceful but bitter in Malian rebel bastion

Three men in flowing, wide-sleeved traditional boubou robes kneel around a torn electoral list weighed down by a large rock to prevent it from blowing away in the unremitting Saharan wind.

They have gathered at "voting centre number one" in the northern Malian city of Kidal for the nation's landmark presidential election, which opened Sunday in an atmosphere of calm in the flashpoint rebel stronghold, despite fears over possible violence.

"The wind is ruining everything," one of them grumbles.

It is not yet 8:00 am (0800 GMT), the official opening time, but already dozens of voters have flocked to the entrance of the school, one of three polling stations in the town, 1,500 kilometres (930 miles) northeast of Bamako.

Togolese soldiers from the United Nations peacekeeping mission search them one by one, as a French army armoured truck waits around a hundred metres away.

"We came early to vote quickly and return to the family. It is important to vote for Mali, for freedom... and to end the crisis," says retired soldier Amine Bou, clasping his voting card and looking for his name at one of a dozen voting booths.

Pinned at the entrance to each is an electoral list, often already in poor condition.

One flies away in the wind, to the apparent indifference of the various polling officials and assistants gathered at the station.

Further on, a UN election observer asks for volunteers at the last moment to replace several polling station officials and assessors who have not turned up.

"These officials haven't come. They are MNLA people trying to sabotage the election. They also tried to intimidate voters into not turning out," said a man who wished to remain anonymous.

The ethnic Tuareg National Liberation Movement of Azawad says it hasn't stopped anyone from voting in Kidal, a region of just 35,000 voters which is nevertheless seen as indicative of the success or failure of the election across the nation.

By 8:30 am, just one person had been able to vote but the system ground into action, little by little.

The ballot itself displays the pictures and names of the 27 candidates. Behind a cardboard booth, voters dip their finger into indelible ink to tick the box next to the photo of their preferred candidate, then fold their ballot and slip it into a transparent plastic box.

"It is poorly organised, we don't know how we are supposed to vote. But we must vote. The population is suffering. We don't have any water or electricity and we need a president who can deal with all that," says Aloussene Ag Andina.

"We are hoping for a president to be elected in the first round to solve Mali's problems."

-- 'We have been in a never-ending transition' --

Organised under pressure from the international community, the election is seen as crucial for the resumption of constitutional order after a military coup in March last year toppled democratically-elected Amadou Toumani Toure.

"For a year, we have been in a never-ending transition. We are electing a president who will legally be able to solve our problems," said Ibrahim Ag Hanoufley, who voted for former prime minister Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, one of the favourites.

"We are in the worst situation we have ever been in and on top of that we have inter-ethnic problems," he said, referring to a recent spate of violence between the black population of Kidal and the lighter-skinned Tuareg.

Voter turnout in Kidal remains uncertain, with many of the majority Tuareg unwilling to forget that they had briefly declared independence in northern Mali after its capture by the MNLA and allied Islamist groups in January 2012.

While some Tuareg see the election as a necessary evil that will give them a legitimate voice in negotiations over the future of the region they call Azawad, others refuse to take part.

More than 60 people, including women and children, wave Tuareg rebel flags before a "tree of protest" in a large town square just 500 metres (550 yards) from the polling centre.

"Fifty-three years of crimes by the Malian army -- that's enough," one banner proclaims, while a man riding a galloping camel waves a Tuareg flag.

"We don't want Mali, we never did. The elections are not our problem. Only pro-Malians are going to vote. None of us will vote for Mali," says MNLA activist Bakdi Walet Ibrahim.

"Our only desire is independence for Azawad. Mali killed our parents, our children, our brothers, even our herds. We want to be free," he said.