Gunmen attacked a convoy carrying election materials in central Mali, triggering a shootout in which four soldiers and eight attackers were killed, a Defence Ministry spokesman said by telephone on Wednesday.
The spokesman said the attack occurred late on Tuesday on the road between Nampala and Coura in the south-central region of Segou, giving no further details.
“The convoy was transporting some youths and election materials. There were 12 killed in total, four soldiers and eight terrorists,” the spokesman said by telephone.
Mali’s presidential election, the second since Tuareg rebels and allied Islamists took over the north in 2012, prompting French forces to intervene the following year to push them back, has been beset by attacks at the hands of suspected Islamist militants and allied ethnic militia.
Armed attackers succeeded in shutting down 644 polling stations on Sunday, representing about three per cent of the total.
A fifth of all polling stations suffered some kind of disruption, figures from the Ministry of Territorial Administration showed.
Jihadists have rendered almost all of north and central Mali unsafe by continually targeting foreign and local interests, taking hostages and attacking security and peacekeeping forces.
The party of Malian presidential candidate Soumaila Cisse said on Monday that the poll would go to a run-off between Cisse and President Ibrahim Keita, a day after a vote that was heavily disrupted by suspected Islamist gunmen.
Cisse’s campaign manager, Tiebele Drame, made the announcement at the party’s headquarters in Bamako, the capital.
Keita’s spokesman said the president was substantially in the lead according to provisional vote count, although he accepted that a run-off was possible.
Spiralling jihadist violence has become a key issue in the campaign, as attacks multiply and the death toll mounts across north and central Mali.
“The law forbids the proclamation of results by anyone except the Ministry of Territorial Administration,” Drame told a news conference.
“However, I can tell you that we are going to a second round between Soumaila Cisse and Ibrahim Boubacar Keita.”
Mahamadou Camara, the spokesman for Keita, said, “According to our tally, IBK has come substantially ahead,” using the popular nickname for the president, taken from his initials.
The exact numbers of voters who were disenfranchised by violence is not known, but they could easily become a flashpoint if the vote is close.
Ministry of Territorial Administration figures showed that, of the roughly 23,000 polling stations that were meant to open, 4,632 were disrupted by “armed attacks or other violence,” of which 644 were unable to operate.
In most of Mali, the vote was peaceful and relatively well organised, with polls opening and closing on time. Most people who were enrolled and turned up were able to vote.
In the mud-walled medieval city of Timbuktu, once a flourishing tourist spot before Islamist militants made it too dangerous, witnesses said gunmen had intimidated voters, seized ballot boxes and in some cases set fire to them in the few polling stations that were attacked outside town.
NAN reports that Islamist militants took over northern cities like Timbuktu in 2012 on the back of a Tuareg rebellion, imposing Sharia law with harsh penalties like cutting off fingers for smoking, until France intervened a year later to push them back. The Islamist militants regard democracy as an un-Islamic Western imposition.
Since Keita came to power in the 2013 poll, Islamist violence has swept south into Mali’s fertile centre.
UN mission chief Mahamat Annadif on Friday urged whoever wins the poll to urgently address jihadist-stoked ethnic violence in Mali’s central “breadbasket.”
The figures from the ministry showed that the central region of Mopti accounted for half of polling stations under attack.
Hamid Bore, 39, a teacher, was in charge of one such station in the village of Dembere.
The militants arrived just as polls opened at 8 a.m.(0800 GMT), he said.
At a news conference, the head of the European Union observer mission welcomed the decision to make public the number of polling stations that had not been able to function but urged it to publish more precise information about which ones exactly.
A second round would temporarily cool tensions.
Cisse’s campaign has repeatedly accused Keita of tampering with the electoral list to try to steal the election.
The UN is heaping pressure on all sides to accept the result — or at least contest it through legal channels — to avert a political crisis on top of the security woes the country is already facing.