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Liberians Head to Polls in Large Numbers; Hope for Honest Count


Liberian candidates and observers in the West African nation's first post-war elections are hoping vote counting will be peaceful and transparent. Turnout appears to have been extremely high in the first-round Tuesday vote.

A Nigerian peacekeeper put restless voters back in line as voting was extended into the night Tuesday at this polling station in the market Red Light area of Monrovia.

Election officials had to extend voting hours in several areas, especially the poorest parts of the capital, such as the West Point township, to accommodate the high turnout and slow pace of voting. Outside Monrovia, voting was reported lighter and many polls closed on time.

Voters chose between 22 candidates for president and between more than 700 for seats in a new two-chamber congress to replace a two-year transitional government.

Election officials have said they will release results as they come in. They have 15 days to count the votes.

To win outright in the first round, candidates must get more than 50 percent of the votes cast. The lead observer for the U.S. government, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi Frazer called on candidates to accept results, win or lose.

"Absolutely all candidates must respect the process, and accept the result," she said. "This is the first election in Liberia's history in which the outcome is not predetermined. So we would hope that the candidates would respect the wishes of the Liberian people and that is certainly the message coming from President Bush and from Secretary Rice."

The apparent front-runner in the presidential poll, former soccer star George Weah, warned against foul play.

"For all of us, we are talking about a transparent and a true democratic election because were talking about a true peace, and reconciliation and stability," he said. "I don't think anybody should try to cheat because we're talking about fair play. Because, cheating, its a dangerous game. There's a consequence for cheating. So we don't want anyone to cheat.

The spokesman for the election commission, Bobby Livingstone, has given assurances this will not be the case.

"I can tell you, we can allay the fears of those who think there will be some foul play because absolutely nobody on this commission, the commissioners, the workers have interest in trying to play any funny games for this," he said. "This is about our lives. This is about the future of Liberia. We are Liberians so that's how seriously we take this process."

The main challenger to Mr. Weah, former government minister Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, does not rule out violence.

"Our people will not create violence under any circumstances, that's the message we sent to them," he said. "Perhaps, were afraid if we win there will be others who are going to attack us because they have not won and we have to create safeguards against that."

Mr. Weah has drawn most of his support from the young, the uneducated and former fighters who see him as the only hope for Liberia not to return to its past of corruption and civil war.

The more than 15,000 peacekeepers and more than 1,000 police from the United Nations have been on high alert throughout the campaign season.

If a second round is needed in the presidential race, it is expected in November.