BAMAKO, Mali — Seven million people are being urged to vote next week in elections to usher in a new dawn of democracy in deeply-divided Mali despite grave doubts over the possibility of a credible outcome.
The July 28 poll is seen as crucial to reuniting a country riven by conflict during an 18-month political crisis that saw French forces intervene to push out Islamist rebels who had seized the north.
But with just seven days to go, renewed violence in the north of the vast west African nation has cast serious doubt over its readiness to deliver a safe election and a result that will be accepted by its disparate population.
United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has called for the results to be respected even if, in a country where 500,000 people have been displaced by conflict, the vote turns out to be "imperfect."
Mali's interim president Dioncounda Traore has also conceded that the poll may not be beyond reproach, acknowledging the concerns of observers over the persistent security challenges threatening a free and fair vote.
Much of the worry is focused on the restive northern town of Kidal, occupied for five months by Tuareg separatists until a ceasefire accord allowed the Malian army in earlier this month to provide security for the polls.
Clashes between Tuaregs and black Africans — apparently caused by rumors that the army was in sending more troops — left four people dead and many others wounded Friday in a sign of growing tension coming up to the polls.
The security operation ahead of the election was further undermined on Saturday when gunmen abducted five polling staff and a local official in the northern town of Tessalit about 125 miles north of Kidal.
A Malian security ministry official said the kidnapping appeared to be the work of the minority Tuareg rebel group the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA).
"Everything indicates this is an attack by the MNLA, which doesn't want there to be an election," the official said.
All six were later released and an MNLA official has been arrested over suspicions that he ordered the kidnapping, an official from the Kidal region said on Sunday.
Tiebile Drame, chief negotiator in the ceasefire deal with the rebels that was a crucial precursor to the elections, announced last week he was withdrawing his candidacy as "the conditions for a fair vote are not in place."
Meanwhile Nigeria's President Goodluck Jonathan told a summit of the 15-nation Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) on Wednesday that there was "a financial gap of $25 million" to properly fund the vote.
But the ECOWAS chief, Ivory Coast's President Alassane Ouattara, told delegates it was crucial that the election went ahead as scheduled.
"The Malian people must be able to count on the experience of the political class and the support of the international community to ensure that the holding of these elections on July 28 is irreversible," he said.
Mali's Foreign Minister Tieman Coulibaly has insisted that a delay would only prolong the political crisis.
"The elections will be credible and transparent, given our conditions — in other words, in a country that has experienced an occupation and where the population is traumatized," he told AFP earlier this month.
The ballot will be the first since a coup in March last year that toppled democratically elected president Amadou Toumani Toure and created an opening that allowed the MNLA and groups allied to al-Qaida to seize northern Mali.
A UN peacekeeping mission integrating more than 6,000 west African soldiers into its ranks is charged with ensuring security during and after the elections, and will grow to 11,200 troops, plus 1,400 police, by the end of the year.
The deployment allows France to start withdrawing most of the 4,500 troops it sent to Mali in January to stop the Islamists from advancing towards the capital, Bamako, from their northern strongholds.
France plans to have just 1,000 troops on the ground before the end of 2013 and has been pushing for a quick election in the hopes of restoring order to the country, under the control of an interim government since the coup.
A European Union mission of 90 election observers will report on whether the polls, which go to a second round on August 11 if required, should be seen as credible a few weeks after the result is announced.
The list of candidates to Mali's next president features four former prime ministers and an array of political heavyweights — but just one woman.
Haidara Aichata Cisse, a legislator for a constituency near the northern city of Gao, will go head-to-head with 27 men, including past premiers Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, Cheick Modibo Diarra, Modibo Sidibe and Soumana Sacko.
Keita, prime minister from 1994 to 2000 and president of the National Assembly for five years from 2002, is seen as the main frontrunner alongside Soumaila Cisse, a former chairman of the Commission of the West African Monetary Union.