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President of Rep. of Congo Largely Unopposed In Election - 2002-03-10

Voters in the Republic of Congo cast ballots Sunday in the first round of presidential elections. Incumbent President Denis Sassou-Nguesso ran largely unopposed after three candidates dropped out of the race, complaining there was a lack of transparency in the poll.

The election took place despite calls for a boycott from opposition leader Andre Milongo, who officially dropped out of the race on Saturday. Two other candidates had pulled out earlier, on Tuesday, citing similar reasons.

Mr. Milongo complained, among other things, that opposition parties were not allowed to have observers present at the polls. Election organizers responded to his allegations by saying all of the opposition's demands had been met.

The national commission that organized the election says turnout was high Sunday, although witnesses say there were few lines at polling stations in the capital, Brazzaville.

Residents in Brazzaville say the voting was carried out in a calm manner. More than 100 international observers were on hand to monitor the polls throughout the country.

Security was tight. The government ordered businesses to remain closed Sunday and borders were sealed for the day.

The poll is Congo's first presidential election in 10 years. Incumbent leader Denis Sassou-Nguesso, who has been in power since leading a coup in 1997, faced off with six candidates - none of whom was seen as a strong opponent. With all those who were considered major candidates out of the race, observers say Mr. Sassou-Nguesso is favored to win the first round. The second round is scheduled on April 7th.

Election organizers says results from the first round are expected on Monday and Tuesday.

In the 10 years since the last presidential elections, Congo has experienced three civil conflicts that killed at least 15,000 people. There has been peace in the country since 1999, when warring factions signed a ceasefire agreement.

Under the terms of a constitution approved by a referendum in January, the newly elected president is to serve a maximum of two, seven-year terms.