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Main Protestant, Catholic Parties Ahead in Northern Ireland Elections

Vote counting in Northern Ireland Assembly elections shows the main Protestant and Catholic parties well ahead of rivals in balloting seen as a step toward restoring a power-sharing government in the province.

Hardline Protestant leader Ian Paisley, who heads the pro-British Democratic Unionist Party, easily won his seat as did Gerry Adams, the leader of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the militant Catholic Irish Republican Army.

Voters Wednesday chose from 250 candidates for 108 seats.

Britain, with help from Dublin, has threatened to indefinitely dissolve the Assembly and impose direct rule from London, if the sides do not meet a March 26 deadline to revive the power-sharing government.

Attempts at transferring power to Belfast have failed several times since a peace deal was reached in 1998.

The last assembly was suspended in 2002 when Protestants accused the IRA of spying.

Earlier this year, Sinn Fein reversed itself and voted to support the province's Protestant-dominated police force, removing a key obstacle to restoring the assembly.

Catholic and Protestant leaders set up the power-sharing government under the 1998 Good Friday Peace Accords.

Some information for this report was provided by AP and Reuters.