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Sierra Leone Opposition Takes Early Lead in Presidential Race

Opposition party officials in Sierra Leone say they are pleased with preliminary results released Monday that give their candidate, Ernest Koroma, a 64 percent to 36 percent lead over Vice President Solomon Berewa of the ruling party. But some say the race still could be close as the early results from Saturday's runoff poll, which represent about 22 percent of the vote, mostly come from the west - an area where the opposition is strong. Kari Barber reports from VOA's West Africa bureau in Dakar.

Spokesman Victor Foh with the opposition All People's Congress, the party of candidate Ernest Koroma, says the National Electoral Commission's preliminary results agree with his party's tallies.

He says they had hoped for even more votes in the west, an area that includes the capital Freetown.

"We are supposed to be leading by a bigger margin, but the turnout was emerging very low," said Foh. "However, we are satisfied."

Observers say turnout was slightly lower for the runoff than the first round's 75 percent of voters.

An unofficial tally conducted by a network of journalists across the country shows the race much closer. Officials from the ruling party say they think their candidate, Vice President Berewa, is faring well in the vote count and making inroads in areas where the opposition has been strong.

APC's Foh says although the early results have boosted confidence within the party, they still have complaints about what they are calling irregularities on voting day.

Koroma says his party poll watchers were prevented from going to polling stations in the east, while European Union and other international observers have cited cases of ballot stuffing, multiple voting and questioned the validity of the vote in areas where tallies show turnout was 100 percent or more. But international observers have largely commended the electoral process.

Foh says for his party to accept the final results, they want to see the National Electoral Commission disqualify votes from those areas where they believe cheating is evident.

"In any polling station where vote counts are in excess of 100 percent, those votes from that polling station should be canceled," said Foh. "Otherwise we will accept whatever results they give us."

Social activists say they expect to see both parties challenge some results.

After a mostly peaceful first round, the period before the runoff saw a rise in tensions that led to street fights between party members in several cities.

Many hope the elections, the first since the withdrawal of U.N. troops in 2005, will be a sign that the country has moved forward past the violence and destruction of its decade-long civil war which ended in 2002.

Neither candidate got 55 percent in the August 11 first round, which made the runoff necessary.

Final results are expected to be announced in the coming days.