By Daniel Flynn
KIDAL, Mali (Reuters) - In the birthplace of a Tuareg revolt that nearly tore Mali apart last year, residents said Sunday's election would not bring lasting peace unless a new president in the distant south gave them more freedom.
The desert region of Kidal in Mali's desolate northeast has produced four rebellions since independence from France in 1960. Its light-skinned Tuareg people say successive black African governments in the capital Bamako have excluded them from power.
"The way the Malian state treated our people, before it was chased out of here last year, we cannot allow that to happen again," the elderly Tuareg clan chief Intallah ag Attaher, shrouded in traditional blue robes, told U.N. Special Representative Bert Koenders during an election-day visit.
Last year's Tuareg uprising was triggered by accusations that the government had violated a 2006 peace accord to develop the region. President Amadou Toumani Toure's failure to tackle the uprising prompted a military coup in the capital Bamako that allowed Islamists to occupy the northern two-thirds of Mali, where they imposed a violent form of Islamic sharia law.
Despite a lack of voting cards and confusion over where to vote, people trickled in to cast their ballots at the Baye Ag Mahaha school in the town centre, hoping the election would give the country a fresh start. Voting bureaux were guarded by heavily armed U.N. peacekeepers and Malian police.
"Things will get better after these elections. We will have a real president again and the peace agreements will be respected," said Tamoument Diallo, 53, seated at a desk in a dilapidated schoolroom after casting her vote.
France sent thousands of troops to halt a southward push by the Islamists in January, destroying their enclave but leaving the Tuareg separatist MNLA movement in charge of Kidal. It said the Tuaregs were not a terrorist group and had helped fight the Islamists - a position which outraged many in Mali's south.
On the streets of Kidal, buildings are daubed with the red, yellow, black and green flag of Azawad, the name Tuaregs give their homeland. Graffiti reads "Mali no" and "Azawad only Azawad".
Turnout in the July 28 first round was just 12 percent in the town - well below the national average of 48 percent. Participation again appeared low on Sunday, with just over 30 voters on a list of more than 430 casting their ballot in one central voting bureau as of 3 p.m.
Although 35,000 people were registered to vote in the Kidal region before last year's conflict, only 15,000 voting cards have been distributed, the governor said, as many people had fled the fighting to refugee camps in neighboring Niger.
Some people have heeded the MNLA's call not to go to the polls. A small group of around 15 young rebel supporters demonstrated outside one polling station. Elsewhere, MNLA representatives watched voters at another bureau in what they said was an effort to avoid fraud.
"I'm not going to vote. I am from Azawad, not Mali. This election is just for Malians," said Mohamed Ag Hainza, 23, a student wearing a flowing crimson robe on a dusty Kidal street.
A June ceasefire deal allowed Malian soldiers and civilian administrators to return to the town but the MNLA still occupies the main government offices. The governor has been forced to live and work in the town hall, sleeping on a mattress in his office.
Election front runner Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, a former prime minister known universally as IBK, has pledged to restore order to Mali and quickly open lasting peace talks if elected. But in a sign of local hostility, his plane was nearly prevented from landing in Kidal during his campaign when separatists tried to block the runway.
Kidal, like the other two regions of northern Mali, is home to a mix of Arab, black African and Tuareg peoples. Keita has insisted that peace talks, due to begin within two months of a new government taking office under the terms of the June ceasefire, would have to include all the peoples of northern Mali, not just the Tuareg.
With some $4 billion in foreign aid promised to redevelop Mali and a backlash against deep-rooted corruption, some say there is a chance for peace.
"We have to make a thorough analysis of why earlier peace deals failed," Koenders told Tuareg leaders. "We have a historic opportunity not to repeat the errors of the past."
(Editing by Joe Bavier and Tom Pfeiffer)