Mali Holds First Vote Following Unrest

Linda Wertheimer talks with Rukmini Callimachi, West Africa bureau chief for The Associated Press, about Sunday's elections in Mali, the first democratic vote there since French troops pushed Islamist militants out of the north of that country.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

The West African nation of Mali held an election yesterday, just six months after French troops forced al-Qaida linked militants out of the north of the country. The quick vote was seen as necessary to re-establish international assistance to Mali, but some say it came too quickly for a nation still healing from the wounds of being al-Qaida's main African base.

To learn more about how voting went and where the fight against the Islamist militants stands, we turned to Rukmini Callimachi. She is the West Africa bureau chief for the Associated Press. We reached her in Northern Mali. Good morning, Rukmini.

RUKMINI CALLIMACHI: Good morning, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: How did the voting go yesterday?

CALLIMACHI: The voting was mixed. In the south of the country, which is the area that has always been under government control, we're hearing that there was decent voter turnout, even high voter turnout in some areas. By contrast, in the north and in Kidal, which is where I am now, voter turnout was dismally low. I went to polling station after polling station that had 100 registered voters or 200 registered voters, where five or six people had shown up to vote.

WERTHEIMER: And do you know why?

CALLIMACHI: Well, Kidal has been at the epicenter of numerous rebellions by the ethnic Tuareg minority in Mali, including the most recent last year. And they've been agitating for their own homeland. So the response I got from most people who had not gone to vote was that they don't believe in Mali. They don't consider themselves Malians and they want to have their own country.

WERTHEIMER: Can you tell who the likely winner of the election is?

CALLIMACHI: We can't at this point. What we know is that there's several candidates who are considered among the frontrunners. One of them is a politician who goes by his initials (unintelligible). He's a former prime minister and head of the National Assembly. There's also a man called (unintelligible). He's a former finance minister and finally, Dembele(ph), who is the candidate from the largest party.

WERTHEIMER: There were fears that the election would stoke ethnic tensions between the north and south. Do you think that happened?

CALLIMACHI: I don't think it happened yesterday, but I think that the ethnic divisions that are present in Mali are not going away. And depending on how the election results are interpreted, they could lead to further strife.

WERTHEIMER: When the French military came into Mali last January, the militants quickly retreated. The northern desert region was quickly retaken. Have the Islamist militants been defeated there?

CALLIMACHI: It's hard to say at this point, but I have to admit that it looks pretty good right now. We haven't seen a major attack by the Islamists in a number of weeks. The French military hasn't been shot at, I don't believe, since March. However, I think what experts and, you know, security analysts will tell you is that they basically kicked the hornets' nest and the Islamists might have left Mali but they're known to be regrouping in Libya, in Tunisia, in Algeria, and in the surrounding countries.

WERTHEIMER: The French are theoretically going to pull out of Mali soon and be replaced by a U.N. peacekeeping force. Does that look like it's happening?

CALLIMACHI: Well, in Kidal we saw several forces who are there. The U.N. peacekeepers with their blue helmets are manning all of the checkpoints in the town. The French are also there. We saw them at a base near the entrance to the city. And the Malian military is there. So you're seeing a situation that's a little bit unusual where you have multiple forces trying to keep the peace here.

WERTHEIMER: Rukmini Callimachi is the West Africa bureau chief for the Associated Press. She's speaking to us from the far north of Mali. Rukmini, thank you very much.

CALLIMACHI: Thank you so much, Linda.

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