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S Leone chooses president under shadow of violence

Katrina Manson

Voting began calmly in Sierra Leone on Saturday despite a turbulent campaign for a presidential runoff vote meant to consolidate peace after a civil war. Rival groups of former combatants have clashed with guns and machetes in the former British colony since the first round on August 11 in which opposition candidate Ernest Bai Koroma of the All People's Congress led with 44%.

Voting began calmly in Sierra Leone on Saturday despite a turbulent campaign for a presidential runoff vote meant to consolidate peace after a civil war.

Rival groups of former combatants have clashed with guns and machetes in the former British colony since the first round on August 11 in which opposition candidate Ernest Bai Koroma of the All People’s Congress (APC) led with 44%.

His rival in the run-off, Vice-President Soloman Berewa of the ruling Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP), polled 38% in the first round.

Voters formed short and orderly queues as polls opened, in contrast with the start of voting on August 11 when many polling stations opened late and there was confusion about where people were meant to cast their ballots.

The elections, the first since United Nations peacekeepers withdrew two years ago, are billed as a test of the West African country’s recovery from its 1991 to 2002 civil war, infamous for the mutilation of civilians by drugged child fighters.

“I am so cast down by the violence. That was how the war started and we don’t want war to start again,” said Isatu Kamara, a 53-year old teacher who was first in line as her polling station opened in the west of the capital Freetown .

UN officials called for a peaceful day of voting and urged a repeat of the first round’s high turnout.

“Saturday’s vote will be the culmination of a long and demanding election process that has been crucial for the stability of Sierra Leone,” said the head of the UN mission, Victor Angelo, urging parties to accept the verdict of the poll.

Opposition alliance

Sierra Leone’s war, fuelled by sales of illegal “blood diamonds”, killed 50 000 people and left the impoverished country of five million people shattered.

Koroma is favourite to win Saturday’s election after third-placed candidate Charles Margai, who split with the SLPP in 2006, threw his support behind him.

His APC party has already won legislative polls which took place on August 11 amid disillusionment with outgoing President Tejan Kabbah’s failure to curb rampant corruption and reduce unemployment of more than 60%.

Kabbah, reelected amid postwar euphoria in 2002, is standing down as required by the Constitution after two five-year terms.

Last month’s polls exposed deep regional and ethnic rifts. The SLPP is strong in the Mende-majority south and east, where it competes with the PMDC, while the APC holds sway in the north and west of the country.

Koroma was forced to halt campaigning in the south and east, where he needs to shore up PMDC support, after his convoy was attacked by SLPP supporters last week.

In the diamond-rich eastern city of Kono, split between the SLPP and the APC, armed police and soldiers patrolled night and day to prevent more violence.

“This area is hotly contested and it’s very tense,” said police chief Mustapha Kambeh, accusing parties of recruiting ex-combatants. “Everybody wants to get a share of the diamonds.” - Reuters

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