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Polls Close in Legislative Elections in Congo

Polls have closed in the Republic of Congo, where voters have cast ballots in the first round of legislative elections. The vote was held amid growing uncertainty over a rebellion that has reignited in the oil-rich nation.

Turnout was low in the capital, Brazzaville, as voters chose from a list of more than 1,200 candidates to fill 137 seats in the Republic of Congo's National Assembly.

The poll was the next step in the process of returning the Congo Republic to democratic rule following a decade of bloody civil wars. The conflicts pitted rivals along ethnic and political lines and killed at least 15,000 people.

The parliament currently in place is a transitional body composed of officials who were appointed, not elected.

The voting on Sunday occurred largely without incident. In a district of the capital, however, officials say a scuffle erupted when precinct workers refused to allow some people to cast ballots because, officials said, they did not have the required identification cards. Witnesses say the would-be voters became angry, grabbed ballot boxes and voting materials from the polling station, and ran off with them.

The legislative vote follows the March presidential election, in which President Denis Sassou-Nguesso was re-elected by a landslide. The poll did not include Mr. Sassou-Nguesso's main rivals. But international observers judged that it was nonetheless free and fair.

Many Congolese voted for Mr. Sassou-Nguesso hoping he, who had consolidated a cease-fire following a decade of conflict, would continue to ensure peace in the country. Analysts say they expected supporters of the President to win a majority in parliament.

Confidence that lasting peace had come was shaken last month when fighting flared in Congo's western Pool region. Anti-government militias calling themselves "Ninjas" last month attacked a railway linking the capital, Brazzaville, with the port city of Pointe-Noire, the country's oil-producing center.

Government troops have been continuously pounding suspected Ninja targets in Pool in recent weeks.

Brazzaville still bears the scars of heavy bombing and gunfire from the conflicts of the 1990s. Although the fighting this time has not come near the capital, residents are very much feeling its effects. Fuel shortages have become common in the oil-rich nation, as the fighting has interrupted railroad and highway transport routes between the capital and the oil-producing regions. Local elections, along with the second round of legislative elections, will be held on June 23rd. Voting did not take place Sunday for eight of the 14 legislative seats of the Pool region, where the fighting has been taking place. Officials say they will be held a later date, which has not yet been set.