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Polls Close in Republic of Congo Parliamentary Elections

Polls have closed in the central African Republic of Congo for the country's run-off parliamentary elections, with votes expected to be tabulated in two days. Despite a low voter turnout, relative calm seemed to color this election day.

As voting stations closed Sunday evening, first reports indicated a turnout as low as 10 to 20 per cent in some parts of Brazzaville.

Many voters stayed away, afraid to venture to the polls after an attack by the so-called rebel Ninja militia on the capital last Sunday. Critics also blamed stiffer identity requirements for low voter turnout

A week ago the rebels launched their first attack on the capital, Brazzaville, since they resumed a civil war at the end of March, two weeks after President Denis Sassou Nguesso confirmed his hold on power in a presidential election. They targeted the city's military base, but were driven back by the army.

As armed soldiers patrolled the city, security remained tight and most traffic was barred in Brazzaville.

Soldiers briefly opened fire to disperse a crowd of looters in Brazzaville's Moukondo district, according to police and electoral officials. But voting was not interrupted, and no casualties were reported.

However, witnesses in the southern Mfilo district, where rebels attacked last week, reported seeing soldiers looting shops there.

A few residents had rushed back to cast their ballots, after fleeing the area when fighting broke out on June 14.

But many others said they were still too afraid to go back to the southern end of Brazzaville so soon after violence took place.

Opposition candidates from the district had asked that the elections be postponed a week to give residents time to return. A coalition of opposition parties, CODESA, went a step further, accusing the government of vote rigging.

The president of CODESA, Andre Milongo, said the polls were a mascarade with the results known in advance. He accused Mr. Sassou Nguesso of planning to recreate the interim parliamentary council he set up in 1998, following his return to power after a civil war.

The National Transitional Council, or CNT, is dominated by members of the ruling party.

Milongo also accused the government of rigging results of the first round of parliamentary elections on May 26th, warning that this could force citizens to resort to violence.

However, Charles Zakarie Bowao, a spokesman for the national electoral organization, CONEL, insisted the elections were transparent, and that the Congolese voted freely.

The next parliament will be made up of 137 seats. Fifty-one seats have already been decided in the first round, two-thirds of them going to the ruling party and its allies.

Seventy-eight more seats will be decided by today's run-off poll. The eight remaining seats in the Pool region, will be decided at a future date because of insecurity there.

Fighting between government forces and the so-called Ninja militia, loyal to deposed president Pascal Lissouba, is still continuing in Pool, 200 kilometers south of Brazzaville.

The elections are the first since 1992, when Mr. Lissouba defeated Mr. Sassou Nguesso, the country's then-Marxist president. Mr. Sassou Nguesso returned to power five years later, ousting Mr. Lissouba in a civil war.

They aim to bring an end to years of conflict in the oil-rich nation, and reviving its devastated society and economy.