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BAMAKO (AFP) – The most popular candidate in Mali's presidential election first round urged voters on Sunday to hand him a "clear and clean" majority in the run-off to ensure victory couldn't be "stolen" from him.
Former premier Ibrahim Boubacar Keita made the appeal in his first public comments since winning a vote marred by accusations of widespread fraud after more than 400,000 ballots from a turnout of 3.5 million were declared spoiled.
Keita finished almost 20 percentage points ahead of runner-up Soumaila Cisse on July 28 but failed to get an outright majority in a field of 27 candidates.
The two go into a second round on August 11 to determine who will lead Mali out of a political crisis ignited by a military coup last year which toppled the country's democratically-elected president.
"By giving me about 40 percent of the vote and a wide lead over the other candidates, the Malian people have expressed a clear first choice," Keita said in a speech at his campaign headquarters in the capital Bamako.
"Today I call on the daughters and sons of Mali to turn out in force. On August 11, I ask you to amplify your vote, I ask you to give me a clear and clean majority, a majority beyond dispute which will give me the power to lead the national recovery to which you aspire."
Dressed in an immaculate white robe, Keita praised the courage of candidates eliminated in the first round who had switched their support to him and described the run-off as "an appointment with history."
But he echoed a demand made by Cisse that attempts at electoral fraud be stamped out in the second round.
"We must remain vigilant so that we are not deprived of hope. Old habits die hard, we all need to remain mobilised against political manoeuvring and fraud," Keita said.
"There is no such thing as an easy victory but this time it will not be stolen from us, God willing."
The caretaker government called the election following a coup last March which overthrew Amadou Toumani Toure, opening the way for the Tuareg separatist National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) to occupy Mali's northern desert with the help of allied Islamist groups.
The MNLA was then sidelined by the Al Qaeda-linked fighters and sided with France when Mali's former colonial power sent troops in to combat the advancing Islamists early this year.
But the movement's top representative in Europe said on Sunday it would resume fighting if no negotiated solution were reached to grant autonomy to the northern homeland they call Azawad.
"We are going to make a proposal... for an autonomy agreement with the central government in Bamako," Moussa Ag Assarid told a forum organised by a separatist Corsican party on the French island.
"We will continue our struggle democratically but we will take up arms again if we have to," he added.
A deal reached in Ouagadougou in June provides for the launch of an "inclusive dialogue" between Tuareg rebels and the new administration 60 days after a cabinet is formed.