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Sierra Leone on Alert Ahead of Presidential Ballot

Sierra Leone police are on full security alert in the run-up to Saturday's presidential run-off elections. Clashes between rival parties have claimed no lives, but police say they will tolerate no violence. Kari Barber rode along with an armed police unit overnight in the capital Freetown and filed this report for VOA.

Police armed with handguns or semi-automatic rifles held across their shoulders with rope climb into the backs of patrol trucks and set out into the streets of Freetown. Several hundred policemen and policewomen rotate on 12 hour patrols making sure all is calm ahead of Saturday's vote.

Alfred Sesay became a policeman just before the start of the nation's civil war. He says he felt powerless to stop the country's spiral into violence and destruction, marked by the hacking of civilians and the use of child soldiers.

"We were not capable and at that time we were not mature enough," he said.

Sierra Leone's decade-long civil war, ending in 2002, claimed tens of thousands of lives and left hundreds of thousands of people displaced.

Now, he says, with training and support from the United Nations, whose troops withdrew in 2005, he feels more confident in his job.

"You have to see the enemy, not the enemy see you, but if you relax you will make the work dangerous, but if you are very diligent and capable it is very simple and nice work," said Sesay.

The patrol unit passes by the headquarters of the All People's Congress and then the Sierra Leone People's Party, the two parties of the candidates facing off in the second round presidential runoff.

Commander Mohammed Bangura realizes there are no police on duty outside the SLPP. The headquarters were the sight of recent clashes between rival party supporters. President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah said it was up to the police to provide security there.

Bangura says he has barely slept this week and has been on-call around the clock. Being in charge of the armed unit, he says he feels personally responsible for the security of the election.

"This is where I find myself," he said. "So if I find myself as a police then I can work as police and save my nation."

The unit passes through a market area where just days ago APC and SLPP supporters fought with clubs and knives. Some on the street are not satisfied with the police's work.

People complain about corruption and inefficiency. They say police take bribes and do not fix anything. But police officers said they have changed the security situation. They say through these elections they hope to prove they are capable of maintaining order and earning respect.

Sesay says no matter what dangers the future holds, he is no longer afraid.

"As time goes on we are use to the game so we from that time now we know that war is our game so we do not have any fear, we do not have any panic," he said.

As one shift returns in the pitch darkness of a city with no electricity, another shift of armed patrol load to leave.

Commander Bangura says this constant surveillance will continue until the end of the vote count or until it is certain the nation is secure and stable.