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Polls open in disputed Liberian runoff election

Polling opened in Liberia’s disputed presidential runoff on Tuesday, one day after at least four opposition supporters were killed amid a boycott protest by the challenger.

Early voting was slow in the tense capital following Monday’s violence, in marked contrast to long lines that greeted the opening of the polls in last month’s first round, won by incumbent president and joint Nobel Peace Prize laureate Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

“I have come to vote but I am not happy for what happened yesterday, after all we are all Liberian and no one should be happy seeing other Liberians being killed,” said Rita Queegbay (39) one of only about 30 people at the Duport Road polling station.

Sirleaf, Africa’s first woman president, is poised for a second term after challenger Winston Tubman called on his supporters to abstain, claiming the process was fraudulent.

His call for a boycott has drawn wide international condemnation, and an 11th hour warning from US President Barack Obama to unnamed individuals not to “disrupt the political process” in a nation still recovering from civil war.

Shooting erupted on Monday as tensions soared between anti-riot police, UN peacekeepers and thousands of protesters gathering for an unauthorised march called by Tubman a day after the official end of campaigning.

Several schools which had served as polling stations in the first round where closed, fearing a repeat of Monday’s violence.

“Some school buildings have denied us access to their premises. We are still negotiating with them to see if they will allow us,” National Elections Commission chairwoman Elizabeth Nelson told the UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) radio.

“Because of the incident yesterday all the voting centres did not open on time.”

Several hundred people gathered at Tubman’s Congress for Democratic Change headquarters on Tuesday morning, some having spent the night there.

“They have decided to kill us, we are ready to die, How can you shoot at people who are not armed and go justify by saying that we were armed?” said 21-year old Albert Doe.

One policeman at the scene of Monday’s violence said a protester fired the first shot, though other witnesses said the CDC supporters were not armed and were only throwing stones.

Obama warned in a statement hours before the polls opened that Liberians should be able to vote free from fear.

“This historic vote is an opportunity for Liberians to strengthen the country’s democracy, and to deepen its peace, prosperity and national unity,” Obama said in a statement issued after the election-eve violence.

Two television stations owned by Tubman’s running mate, former AC Milan footballer George Weah, were shut down overnight following the violence. Three other pro-opposition radio stations were closed following a government order.

“Right after our evening broadcast police came and asked us to leave the premises of the station and closed it down,” said Samukai Dukulay, senior broadcaster at Power television and Power FM.

Weah’s King FM and Clarc TV were also shut down, as was Love FM, which had only just reopened after being torched after the first round.

Sirleaf, who made history when she became Africa’s first elected female president in 2005 and jointly won the Nobel Peace Prize shortly before the first round, has accused her rival of violating the constitution.

“I know that nobody in this country, no matter what the talk or rhetoric, nobody really wants us to go back to war,” she said while campaigning Sunday.

The nation is still struggling to emerge from the aftermath of a 1990-97 civil war that left some 250 000 dead.

Some 1.8-million voters have registered for the election. Despite his boycott, Tubman’s name still appears on ballot papers.

A first round of voting was praised as mostly free and fair by some 800 foreign and 4 000 international observers, with a turnout of some 72%.

The country remains heavily reliant on a United Nations peacekeeping force or around 8 000 for security. — Reuters

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