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Malians applaud as Cisse vows to create opposition

Defeated presidential candidate Soumaila Cisse speaks at a news conference in Bamako, Mali, August 13, 2013. REUTERS/Joe Penney
Defeated presidential candidate Soumaila Cisse speaks at a news conference in Bamako, Mali, August 13, 2013. REUTERS/Joe Penney

By Daniel Flynn and Tiemoko Diallo

BAMAKO (Reuters) - The loser of Mali's presidential election vowed on Tuesday to build the war-torn West African country's first real opposition in years, as Malians applauded his admission of defeat that dispelled fears of fresh conflict.

Soumaila Cisse conceded late on Monday as it became clear former prime minister Ibrahim Boubacar Keita had swept Sunday's second-round vote with a promise to restore the pride of a nation riven by a military coup and Islamist revolt last year.

Keita faces a daunting task to rebuild a broken nation, despite pledges of more than $4 billion in international aid. He must reach a peace deal with northern Tuareg separatist rebels, overhaul the armed forces and tackle widespread corruption.

On the streets of the riverside capital Bamako, residents heaped praise on Cisse's gesture, which avoided a potentially acrimonious battle in a nation weary of turmoil, and voiced hope for the future.

Malian television showed images of Cisse going with his wife and children to congratulate Keita and his family at their home.

"Soumaila's conduct was truly impeccable," said Aissata Camara, a pharmacy lab technician. "It was very impressive and very democratic as well. It was a relief for all of us."

Despite alleging ballot stuffing and voter intimidation by security forces, Cisse said he would not present any complaints to the Constitution Court, handing Keita a stronger mandate to undertake reform. Official results are expected on Wednesday.

"I will build an alternative group. We will make proposals. We will criticize if necessary. We will promote democracy by opposition," Cisse told a news conference. "That is what our country needs today."

Political opponents being co-opted into government have long meant there has been little criticism of an ineffectual state, eroding faith in a political system which has failed to deliver returns for the poor majority of Mali's 16 million people.

A military coup in 2012, sparked by government passivity over a Tuareg revolt, led to such chaos that Islamist rebels were able to seize control of the northern two-thirds of Mali.

It took a major French military intervention in January to oust the rebels. Paris has since pushed for swift elections as it seeks to draw down its military presence to 1,000 troops by year-end, handing responsibility for security to a 12,600-strong UN peacekeeping mission.

HOLLANDE CONGRATULATES KEITA

French President Francois Hollande spoke by telephone with Keita, known in Mali by his initials IBK, to congratulate him on his victory and voice France's commitment to Mali's development.

International and local observers said the presidential election was credible, despite some minor irregularities.

With popular expectations running high, Keita must now provide jobs for Mali's fast-growing population and kick-start the economy of Africa's third largest gold exporter, which contracted 1.2 percent last year.

Keita has said his top priority will be to secure lasting peace for the sparsely populated desert north, which has been racked by five bloody rebellions since independence from France in 1960. A ceasefire accord in June obliged the new government to open talks within 60 days of taking office.

"If anyone can pull it off, it is probably IBK," said one Western diplomat, describing Keita as a political pragmatist who knows how to get things done.

Keita, who won a reputation for toughness by crushing student protests as prime minister in the 1990s, has signaled that he will convene a national convention on reforming the state - likely to include tribal leaders, rebel groups, political parties and civil society - in a move toward national reconciliation.

Moussa Ag Acharatoumane, a spokesman for the MNLA Tuareg rebels seeking greater autonomy from Bamako, said there had not yet been any contact with Keita's team.

"We are pleased that Mali has an elected president. We hope he will quickly name a government to start talks with us," he said. "If there is no agreement, things could degenerate."

Highlighting ethnic tensions between Tuaregs and the black African population, the younger brother of Mali's Tuareg tourism minister was lynched by a mob in the northern town of Lere on polling day.

(Additional reporting by Adama Diarra in Bamako and David Lewis in Dakar; editing by Mike Collett-White)

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