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Rwanda Holds Presidential Election - 2003-08-25

Voters in Rwanda have held their first multi-party presidential election, since the African country gained independence from Belgium more than four-decades ago. The incumbent president, Paul Kagame, is expected to win, amid widespread accusations that the government intimidated opposition supporters ahead of the vote.

Rwandan voters began lining up well before dawn at about 14-hundred polling stations across the country. Four-million people, nearly half of Rwanda's population, are registered to vote.

Although there are three candidates running for the presidency, most of the focus has been on incumbent Paul Kagame.

The ethnic Tutsi leader was elected president three-years ago by Parliament, but has effectively ruled Rwanda for the past nine years. In 1994, he ousted the country's extremist Hutu government responsible for orchestrating the genocide that killed as many as one-million Tutsis and moderate Hutus.

Mr. Kagame is credited with not only ending the bloodshed, but nursing Rwanda's economy back to health and starting the process of reconciliation between the two ethnic groups.

Casting his vote at a polling station in the capital, Kigali, President Kagame told reporters that he is confident that Rwandans approved of his job performance and would vote to keep him in office.

He says, "Our country has made huge strides in the area of building national unity and reconciliation and many other areas. And the results (of the election) should be able to show that."

But the electoral campaign has shown that Rwandans, 85-percent of whom are Hutus, are still struggling to overcome strong ethnic divisions.

During the month-long campaign, Mr. Kagame accused his main challenger, Faustin Twagiramungu, of urging Hutus to vote along ethnic lines, a serious accusation and a crime punishable by imprisonment in Rwanda.

Mr. Twagiramungu, a moderate Hutu who once served as prime minister in the Tutsi-led post-genocide government, vigorously denies the charge. The opposition leader contends that Mr. Kagame is afraid of losing the election and has been trying to discredit his campaign through intimidation and harassment.

The United States and international human-rights groups have expressed concern about Mr. Twagiramungu's allegations. They say the election cannot be viewed as free and fair if the allegations are true.

Mr. Kagame insists he has done nothing wrong.

He says, "For the image of the country and of myself to be tarnished, there has to be truth about what is being said. If you can not get proof for what you are saying, why do you keep repeating it? Why do not you give it a rest?"

Nearly two-thousand election monitors, including 350 foreign observers from the European Union and the African Union, are in Rwanda to monitor the voting. Poll results are due to be announced by Tuesday.