By Tim Cocks and Tiemoko Diallo
BAMAKO (Reuters) - Vote counting began in Mali on Sunday evening after an election to determine whether President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita will win a second term, amid ethnic and jihadist violence that has dramatically worsened since he came to power five years ago.
Two dozen other candidates were contesting the presidency in a largely Saharan desert nation that has been fractured by a Tuareg rebellion and Islamist militancy across its north and central zones since the last poll in 2013.
In some parts of Mali, the vote simply did not happen owing to a lack of security, and the European Union observer mission urged the government to publish the places that would be unable to vote, to quell suspicions by candidates.
In a news conference on Sunday night, a campaign director for candidate Soumaila Cisse, 68, seen as mounting the strongest challenge to Keita, estimated at least 644 polling stations out of some 23,000 had been unable to open owing to a lack of security.
"We invited them (the government) to state in which communes it was impossible to hold elections. We haven't yet had a response," Tiebile Drame said. "We deplore this dysfunction."
Authorities were not immediately available to comment.
Voting was briefly suspended at a polling station in the village of Aguelhok in the northern region of Kidal after militants fired 10 mortar bombs, U.N. mission spokesman Olivier Salgado said. No one was hurt. The attack was the kind that has become routine in Mali in the months leading up to the vote.
"One mortar landed around 100 metres from a polling station so there was a bit of panic," Salgado said.
Eight million people were registered to vote. The candidates included businessmen, an astrophysicist, and just one woman.
Counting started in the riverside capital, Bamako, soon after polls closed at 6 p.m. (1800 GMT). In one polling station at a school, officials tallied votes on a blackboard. But results may not come out for days - candidates are forbidden from announcing anything before the official tally.
SCARED TO VOTE
The threat of violence was on the minds of voters, in a country where on average only 40 percent turn out.
"I was scared to come and vote because of the insecurity, but I feel relieved because everything went well," said 26-year-old housekeeper Mariam Cisse in the northern medieval Islamic city of Timbuktu, whose mud-walled mosques were tourist attractions until it became beset by Islamist militancy in 2012.
She voted for Soumaila Cisse.
A Reuters reporter said it was calm in Timbuktu on Sunday after days of unrest leading up to the polls.
One thousand km (600 miles) southwest, in Bamako, 32-year-old Hama Diallo just hoped for a safer future. "I hope the president-elect makes security a priority, without which nothing is possible."
The head of the EU observer mission, Cecile Kyenge, said the mission had been informed of certain incidents in the north and centre, on which she declined to elaborate.
In the past three years, jihadist attacks have tripled in Mali and violent deaths doubled, according to the civil society website Malilink. Islamists have spread from the north to the centre and even targeted Bamako - as in 2015, when gunmen killed 20 people in a raid on a hotel - as well as Mali's neighbours.
Islamist groups are seen as the biggest threat to Western interests in the Sahara. They have hit foreign targets and kidnapped scores of Westerners, often holding them for years until they get multimillion-dollar ransoms.
Last month, a suicide bomber drove a vehicle laden with explosives into the headquarters of the regional G5 Sahel anti-terrorist force in Severe, central Mali, killing three people.
Growth has averaged 5 percent under Keita, and Mali's key exports of gold and cotton have flourished, as have agricultural staples such as rice, but insecurity has taken the shine off.
The United Nations peacekeeping mission to Mali has suffered more deaths than any in history, and some 170 peacekeepers have died, more than 100 by "malicious acts". Human rights groups have raised the alarm over alleged executions by security forces. The Defence Ministry promised to investigate.
Malian elections, however, have so far been generally peaceful. Yet opposition candidates have alleged tampering with the electoral list, and Cisse told thousands of supporters on Friday the government was planning to steal the election.
"Every Malian must stay vigilant in the face of this attempt at electoral fraud. This historic election cannot be pilfered," he said, voting in his home town of Niafunke, near Timbuktu.
Keita rejected Cisse's accusations as he voted in his home constituency of Sebinikro outside Bamako, a neighbourhood of dirt roads where chickens peck at piles of trash.
"This sterile polemic is perfectly useless. There has only ever been one electoral roll in Mali," he told journalists, wearing his trademark white kaftan and skull cap.
On Saturday, a spokesman for U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged "all political actors in Mali to commit to making this poll a peaceful, free and transparent process."
(Reporting by Tim Cocks and Tiemoko Diallo; Additional reporting by Marina Depetris in Bamako and Maita Moro in Timbuktu; Editing by Edward McAllister, William Maclean, Kevin Liffey and Peter Cooney)