Voters in Mali headed to the polls this morning in a presidential election it is hoped will provide a fresh start to a country divided by a coup and a war in its desert north.

Separatist and Islamist rebels swept across the desert north of the former French colony last year shortly after soldiers ousted the president.

Thousands of French troops halted a rebel advance in January and United Nations peacekeepers are deploying to stabilise the broken nation.

A successful vote today would be seen as taking the gold-producing country another step towards recovery.

Voters arrived early and long queues formed at many of the 21,000 polling stations across Mali.

However, the official opening of polls was delayed in many voting centres as election workers awaited the last-minute delivery of voting materials.

In a sign of last-minute preparations, residents were still lining up to collect newly-printed ID cards that they will have to show in order to vote.

Authorities also instructed 6.8 million eligible voters how to find their polling stations by sending SMS messages to designated numbers.

Most of the front-runners are established political figures of Malian politics, so there is little likelihood of a radical overhaul.

Two former prime ministers - Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, known as IBK, and Modibo Sidibe - are expected to be among the top finishers.

Soumaila Cisse, a respected economist, former finance minister and native of the region of Timbuktu, is also among the leading candidates.

Dramane Dembele, chosen as candidate of Mali's largest party, ADEMA, could appeal to youth voters.

In the run-up to the vote, experts had warned that a rushed election might lead to challenges and further crises.

But election officials say they have distributed 85% of the ID cards and a free and fair race in a field of 26 men and one women could take place.

A second round will take place on 11 August if no candidate wins over 50% of the vote.

Louis Michel, head of the European Union's election observer mission, said he was "positively surprised" by preparations and that the conditions for the vote were acceptable.

"A month ago, there were a lot of doubts. But it has come together. Everyone realises that this interim government has to end as its inherent fragility and uncertainty has been so costly for Mali," said US Ambassador Mary Beth Leonard.

France is hoping a successful vote will allow it to scale down its military presence in Mali.

It currently has around 3,000 troops in the country. A 12,600-strong UN mission is rolling out.

While there have been few counter-attacks by Islamists since they were scattered from their northern strongholds, MUJWA, one of the groups that occupied Mali's north last year, yesterday threatened to attack polling stations.

"Places of the so-called election will be a target for the strikes of the Mujaahideen [holy strugglers]," Mauritania's Nouakchoute News Agency quoted the group as saying in a statement, a copy of which was obtained by the agency.

The group also warned what it called the Muslims of Mali against taking part in the elections and urged them to stay away.