BAMAKO - Malians approved changes in the constitution in Sunday's referendum with 97% of the vote, the West African country's electoral authority said on Friday.

Regional powers and Mali's ruling military junta -- which mostly organized and backed the referendum -- said it will pave the way to elections in February 2024 and a return to civilian rule.

Turnout rate was at 39.4% of the country's 8.4 million registered voters, Moustapha Cisse, head of the electoral commission said, announcing the results in Bamako.

Some of the proposed clauses in the new constitution drafted by the transitional council are contentious, with proponents saying they would strengthen fragile political institutions and opponents saying they would give too much power to the president.

But regional bodies and the United Nations see the referendum itself as an important test of the junta's willingness to stick to the transition and hold a nationwide democratic process, particularly at a time when Islamist militants are stepping up attacks.

Poll observers reported a number of security incidents during the vote.

Voters in several villages were forced to flee after gunmen burst into voting centres, bringing operations to a halt and destroying materials, observers said.

Little voting took place in large areas of northern Mali controlled by militants linked to al Qaeda and Islamic State.

The West Africa Sahel nation has struggled to find stability since a 2012 Tuareg rebellion. Northern armed groups that signed a 2015 peace deal, had called for a boycott of the referendum saying the process was "not sufficiently inclusive".

(Reporting by Tiemoko Diallo and Fadimata Kontao Writing by Anait Miridzhanian and Bate Felix Editing by Alistair Bell)