BAMAKO : Malians voted on Sunday in parliamentary elections intended to seal the troubled West African nation's return to democracy but overshadowed by the threat of Islamist reprisals.

The polls mark Mali's first steps to recovery after it was plunged into chaos by a military coup in March last year, and finalise a process begun with the election of its first post-conflict president in August. Some 6.5 million Malians are eligible to cast ballots for a new national assembly, with more than 1,000 candidates running for 147 seats - but turnout initially looked weak across the country.

"I see that there are not many people here - the candidates weren't able to mobilise - but I hope that in the afternoon there will be more people," said Oumou Sawadogo, a voter at a polling station set up in a school in the capital Bamako.

 In another voting centre, Boubacar Tembely said he had come to vote despite feeling bitter about how little progress has been made in Mali. "The politicians are all the same. I left my ballot blank as a protest to them," he told AFP.

Voting takes place amid an upsurge in violence by Al-Qaeda-linked rebels who stalk the vast northern desert, an ever-present danger to French and African troops who are tasked with providing security for the election alongside the Malian army. Al-Qaeda-linked insurgents ousted by French and African troops in January from the northern towns they had occupied last year resumed their deadly insurgency on September 28, after a lull of several months.

Since then, a dozen civilians as well as Malian and Chadian soldiers in the United Nations' MINUSMA peacekeeping mission have been killed in the country's vast desert north while French security personnel were targeted for the first time last week. Much of the worry ahead of the polls has been focused on the largely lawless region of Kidal, occupied for five months by ethnic Tuareg separatists until a ceasefire accord signed in June allowed in the Malian army.

In a grisly reminder for the West of the ongoing security crisis, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) on November 2 kidnapped and shot dead two French radio journalists who had come to the region's capital, also called Kidal, 1,500 kilometres (930 miles) northeast of Bamako. Voting began in an atmosphere of calm across the vast desert north, according to witnesses contacted by AFP from Bamako.

"It's going well here. The only problem is that there is no rush at the moment. In some polling stations, there are even more election officials that voters," local electoral commission head Oumar Toure said in Kidal.