Mali presidential vote count under way

Vote-tallying was under way in Mali on Monday after a presidential election expected to provide a fresh start to the troubled west African nation following more than a year of political turmoil, war and a military coup.

An electorate of seven million had a choice Sunday between former premier Ibrahim Boubacar Keita and ex-finance minister Soumaila Cisse to lead Mali's recovery, following last year's coup that ignited an Islamist insurgency.

The election, the first since 2007, is seen as crucial for unlocking more than $4 billion in aid promised after international donors halted contributions in the wake of the coup.

Louis Michel, head of the European Union's election observation mission, said there was "absolutely nothing doubtful or suspicious to report" and that voting had taken place "in good conditions, in a serene, quiet atmosphere".

"Whoever is elected will be elected with democratic legitimacy. That is my belief," he told reporters in the capital Bamako, adding that there had been "a leap forward in terms of democracy in this country".

The government has until Friday to make public the result of the run-off -- called after none of 27 candidates in the first round on July 28 secured an outright majority -- but observers expect an announcement sooner.

Early signs were positive for Keita, with a Mauritanian camp for Malian refugees reporting that its vote had gone overwhelmingly in his favour.

A Mauritanian local government source said 76 percent of some 3,500 voters at the Mbera camp in the country's southeast had chosen Keita over Cisse.

Keita, 68, and Cisse, 63, lost out in 2002 to Amadou Toumani Toure, who was overthrown by a military junta in March last year as he was preparing to end his final term in office.

The return to democratic rule will allow France to withdraw most of the 4,500 troops it sent to Mali in January to oust Al-Qaeda-linked extremists who had occupied the north in the chaos that followed the coup.

Keita was more than 20 percentage points ahead of his rival in the first round but Cisse had complained about widespread fraud.

Mali's Constitutional Court rejected the allegations, however, confirming that Keita had won 39.8 percent, while Cisse attracted a 19.7 percent share.

Keita claimed to have the support of 22 of the 25 candidates eliminated in the first round and was backed by Mali's influential religious establishment, while Cisse was endorsed by Adema, Mali's largest political party.

The country of more than 14 million remains the continent's third-largest gold producer, but its $10.6 billion economy contracted by 1.2 percent last year. Widespread poverty has contributed to unrest in the north, with several armed groups vying for control in the vacuum left when the Islamists fled.

The region is home predominantly to lighter-skinned Tuareg and Arab populations who accuse the sub-Saharan ethnic groups that live in the more populous and prosperous south of marginalising them.

A UN peacekeeping mission integrating more than 6,000 African soldiers was charged with ensuring security on Sunday and in the months after the election. By the end of the year it will have grown to 11,200 troops and 1,400 police.