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High Turnout Marks Election in Central African Republic

Voters in the Central African Republic are turning out in very large numbers in post-conflict elections. Coup leader turned interim President Francois Bozize faces 10 challengers in the main presidential poll, while a new parliament is also being selected.

Because of a late start and long lines, many polling stations in the capital extended voting for several hours.

During the day, several melees broke out, while would-be voters waited up to four hours under a blazing sun before being able to cast their ballots. Some fainted, while others shaded themselves under colorful umbrellas.

One young woman, Christiane, voting for the first time, said it was worthwhile to be patient.

"When people say to vote, I think it means democracy," she said. "The power of people, by people, for people. So people can choose who can drive our country."

Former military chief turned coup leader, Mr. Bozize, voted in much more orderly fashion at town hall.

He said it was an exceptional moment, and that democracy was taking root. He said he was very proud of his own contribution, and that the Central African Republic can no longer afford to go backwards after years of civil strife.

Mr. Bozize overthrew a largely corrupt, but elected government in March 2003. At the time, General Bozize had said he would only rule during a transitional period, but then he changed his mind, saying a lot of work was left to do. He is running without the support of a party, under a coalition called Kwa Na Kwa, which means, work only work.

Two of the main contenders, former military ruler Andre Kolingba and former Prime Minister

Martin Ziguele have large parties backing them. They did not vote themselves, because they did not have their own voting cards, since they have been living in exile.

Some of their militant supporters complained that, overnight, military forces picked up Congolese foreigners, and gave them fake voting cards to vote for Mr. Bozize.

A supporter of Mr. Bozize denied this was taking place, saying the allegations were, in his words, intoxication.

But authorities said several men who were seen handing out fake voting cards had been arrested.

A candidate will need more than 50 percent of the vote to win outright in the first round, or there will be a second round between the top two finishers. The same system applies to the 105 seats up for grabs in parliament.

Observers from the international organization of French-speaking nations were on hand as monitors.

Some said this was an important test for the region as well, as it is the first of a series of post-conflict elections this year. Others are scheduled in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia and Ivory Coast.