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Congolese Begin Voting in First Free Poll in 40 Years


Voters across the Democratic Republic of Congo began voting Sunday in the first free poll the country has held in more than 40 years. People lined up across the Congo and cast ballots in a referendum on the country's post-war constitution. Many voting offices opened late, there were some cases of intimidation, but there have not been any reports of serious violence.

Many voters in Kinshasa had to wait several hours for polling stations to open as election workers struggled to turn up on time and voting materials were prepared.

Some crowds became agitated and accused the organizers of incompetence. But after more than 40 years without a free election, many Congolese appeared to accept the added delay.

Across the vast chaotic country at the heart of Africa, Congolese are voting Sunday on whether to accept or reject a new post-war constitution.

If the document is accepted, the peace-process to end Congo's last conflict, a five-year war that has killed four million people, will continue and elections should be held by June 2006.

If it is rejected, there will be further delays as the document is redrafted.

The turnout in the capital, Kinshasa, was relatively low in the morning, but many observers said this could be due to the large number of people who attend church and would be expected to vote in the afternoon.

Some opposition parties unhappy with the document have called for the constitution to be rejected. But others believe the process, not just the document, is flawed and they have called for the referendum to be boycotted.

There were some cases of intimidation in Kinshasa, where those supporting the boycott tried to prevent people from voting, but they appeared limited and the protesters were soon dispersed by the police.

About 25 million people have registered to take part in Congo's electoral process. And it will take some time before results trickle in from the jungles of the north, the war-torn hills in the east and the diamond and copper fields of the south.

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