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    Mali Votes for President to Lead Country Out of Crisis

    Malians went to the polls on Sunday to choose a president in a runoff election that will decide who lead the country out of 18 months of civil strife and political crisis.

    Former Malian prime minister Ibrahim Boubacar Keita faces former finance minister Soumalia Cisse, in an election that some analysts described as a potential turning point for the West African nation.

    Heavy rain in the capital, Bamako, dampened the turnout Sunday morning, but the weather improved in the afternoon, prompting more voters to head to polling stations.

    Keita dominated the election's first round on July 28, winning almost 40 percent of the vote, while Cisse pulled in just under 20 percent. That round drew a record turnout of 50 percent of the country's seven million registered voters.

    Results of Sunday's vote are expected at the latest by Friday.



    Keita is nationalist from southern Mali. Most of the 25 candidates eliminated in the first round of voting endorsed him for the runoff, including the third place finisher .

    Cisse is a technocrat from the northern desert town of Timbuktu. His campaign has focused on economic recovery.

    The election - the country's first since 2007 - is seen as crucial to unlocking nearly $4 billion in promised international aid that was suspended after a military coup last year plunged the country into chaos.

    Keita and Cisse served together in a government in the 1990s, but ended up in opposing camps following the 2002 presidential win by Amadou Toumani Toure, who was overthrown in the March 2012 coup.

    In the chaos that followed, ethnic Tuareg separatists seized towns and cities in Mali's northern desert with the help of several Islamist groups.

    Those seizures and Islamist threats to the capital, Bamako, prompted former colonial power France to deploy troops earlier this year to push the Islamists back into desert areas.

    The rebels have maintained a presence in some areas such as the far northern town of Kidal. A local journalist there told VOA that voter turnout at mid-day on Sunday appeared higher than the dismally low participation seen in the first round.

    A U.N. peacekeeping force of 12,000 troops began providing security to Mali in July, as the last of the French forces continued preparations to leave the country by the end of the year.

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