Sierra Leone holds presidential poll

Sierra Leone held its first elections Saturday since U.N. peacekeepers left nearly two years ago, a vote that will test whether the diamond-rich West African country can transfer power peacefully after years of conflict.

Sierra Leone holds presidential poll
Voters in the capital lined up with umbrellas under drizzling rain, in some cases hours before voting booths opened.

"I want change and development," Jaclin Johnson said as he waited to cast his ballot at a public school building in Freetown. "If the elections go on peacefully, there will be development."

Seven candidates are vying for the nation's top post, with 69-year-old Vice President Solomon Berewa the main front-runner. President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah, 75, cannot run again because of term limits.

In addition, 572 candidates are vying for 112 parliamentary seats.

One of the poorest nations in the world, Sierra Leone has struggled to rebuild after a decade of war and coups ended in 2002.

Tens of thousands of civilians died during the war, which ended after U.N. and British forces beat back the Revolutionary United Front, whose rebels were infamous for burning parts of Freetown, abducting children into their ranks, and raping and hacking off the limbs of civilians.

Kabbah is credited with keeping the country stable since then. U.N. peacekeepers — the force once numbered 17,500 and was at its height the largest in the world — withdrew in the final days of 2005, leaving security to a new 9,500-strong police force and a new 10,000-strong British-trained army.

The International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank, said in a recent report that "most of the problems that existed before the war remain" — poverty, bad governance, corruption, massive unemployment and disillusioned youth.

Still, the threat of war erupting anew is remote.

Sierra Leone has held two elections since the war ground to a halt; a presidential vote in 2002 and municipal elections two years later.

In July, a U.N.-backed war crimes court issued its first sentences since it was set up five years earlier, handing down half-century jail terms to three former junta leaders.

On Aug. 2, two former members of the Civilian Defense Forces militia, a pro-government group that fought against the rebels, also were sentenced for torturing and mutilating civilians during the conflict.

Saturday's presidential victor must take more than 55 percent of the vote to avoid a run-off between the top two finishers. About 2.6 million of the nation's 5 million people are registered to vote.

Results will be released progressively with final tallies within 12 days of voting, according to the national electoral commission.

Also running for president are 54-year-old Ernest Bai Koroma, a businessman leading the main opposition All People's Congress party, and Charles Francis Margai, 62, a lawyer and former minister who runs the People's Movement for Democratic Change, which broke away from the ruling Sierra Leone People's Party 15 months ago.

Sierra Leone gained independence from Britain in 1961, but suffered a military coup six years later. The last coup occurred in 1997 when a junta briefly took power before a West African intervention force reversed it.

AP
Last Mod: 11 Ağustos 2007, 19:48
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