ABUJA (AFP) – West African leaders on Thursday insisted Mali's presidential election would be held on July 28 as scheduled despite doubts over whether the crisis-hit nation was ready to organise a vote.
The polls are seen as crucial to re-uniting the country which remains shaken after a March 2012 military coup and a sweeping offensive by Islamist rebels who captured the entire north before being flushed out with the help of French troops.
Ivory Coast's President Alassane Ouattara, current chair of the 15-nation West African bloc ECOWAS, said "there are no doubts" the vote would be held on time..
The polls would take place "on the scheduled date," the Ivorian leader said at the close of an ECOWAS summit in Nigeria's capital.
The summit's final communique applauded Malian authorities for "the preparations under way aimed at conducting a free, fair and transparent election."
On Wednesday a presidential challenger who was the chief negotiator in a ceasefire deal with rebels withdrew from the race and filed a court appeal to have the polls postponed.
"The conditions for a fair vote are not in place," Tiebile Drame told journalists in Mali's capital Bamako.
He specifically pointed to problems with a voter registry in the northern town of Kidal, which had been at the centre of the fighting.
Ouattara told AFP that "the elections will be held in Kidal like everywhere else in the country."
Last month, the head of Mali's election commission said it would be "extremely difficult" to organise elections on July 28.
"Nothing is simple in life but we must move forward," Ouattara told AFP.
"I believe the Malian political class, in its entirety, and Malians have the will to hold this election to turn the page," he said.
The March 2012 coup in Mali toppled president Amadou Toumani Toure and created an opening that allowed groups allied to Al-Qaeda to seize the vast desert north.
France, which plans to start withdrawing most of the 4,500 troops it sent to Mali, has been pushing for a quick election in the hopes of restoring order.
The country has been led by a transitional government since the coup.
Mali's acting president Dioncounda Traore, who is not among the 28 candidates vying to be the next head of state, has also acknowledged that the election would not be perfect, "much less in a country in crisis".
Some 500,000 thousand people are still displaced after the conflict.