BAMAKO : Malian and French leaders on Monday praised the calm and smooth-running presidential vote in Mali, the first election since a coup last year led to an Islamist insurgency in the north.

There were no reports of violence in Sunday’s poll despite threats to “strike” polling stations by armed Islamists who had occupied northern Mali before being ousted in January by a French-led military intervention.

Local and international observers noted a strong turnout in the populous south, although official data have yet to be released, giving rise to optimism that the voting rate would exceed the 36 percent achieved in 2007 elections.

French President Francois Hollande hailed the Malian vote, “marked by a good turnout and an absence of any major incident”.

“Congratulations are in order that the Mali elections went off well... For France, it is a great success,” said his prime minister, Jean-Marc Ayraul.

France had a lot riding on a successful election, having pressured its former colony into a quick vote which would allow it to start withdrawing most of the 4,500 troops it sent in to stop the Islamists from advancing towards the capital Bamako.

Even in the northern regional capital of Kidal, a stronghold of Mali’s Tuareg rebellion and the scene of recent deadly ethnic violence, voters cast their ballots in an atmosphere of calm, although the turnout was thought to have been low.

“I’m a happy man. We rose to the challenge of voting in Kidal, a zone of insecurity where almost everyone is armed, without incident, without a single shot, and no one could have imagined that a few weeks ago,” said regional governor Adama Kamissoko.

Louis Michel, the head of the 100-strong European Union election observation mission who visited Kidal for a few hours during voting, spoke of the “huge enthusiasm” of those who did make it to the ballot box.

Sunday’s vote was the first since an uprising by Tuareg separatists sparked a military coup in March last year which toppled democratically-elected president Amadou Toumani Toure, plunging Mali into a political crisis which opened the way for Islamists to occupy the vast desert north for 10 months.

The authorities have until the end of Friday to announce the results, although preliminary findings collated by journalists in polling stations gave a clear early lead to former premier Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, sparking celebrations among his supporters.

The unofficial projections, based on the accounts of reporters watching counts across the country, suggest that 69-year-old Keita, known universally as IBK, could even cause an upset and win the first round vote outright.

Although there are 27 candidates, analysts have characterised the election as a two-horse race, with Keita a frontrunner alongside Soumaila Cisse, 63, a former finance minister and erstwhile chairman of the Commission of the West African Economic and Monetary Union.

Thousands of Keita’s supporters massed on his party headquarters in Bamako overnight as news of his apparent lead was broadcast on local radio, an AFP correspondent at the scene reported.

“IBK - the man we need,” they chanted. One supporter shouted: “It is the people who have spoken!”

A large crowd also gathered at Keita’s home and convoys of cars circulated, horns blaring in celebration at what his supporters were calling victory.

If no candidate obtains an absolute majority, a second round run-off between the two top vote-getters will take place on August 11.