Sierra Leone's leading presidential candidate, Vice President Solomon Berewa, boycotted country's first-ever pre-election debates. But the other six candidates were on hand and discussed employment, education, health and other issues before an invited crowd. Naomi Schwarz is in Freetown and has more.

Presidential candidate Charles Margai caused a stir at the presidential debates when he arrived, fully clad in his party's orange, more than an hour and a half late.

But the candidate from the newly formed People's Movement for Democratic Change caused an even larger stir minutes later when he accused the ruling Sierra Leone People's Party of inciting political violence. "All of us here will be pretending if we were to say that we do not know the ruling SLPP is bent on perpetrating violence in this country," he said.

He said the debate is an exercise in futility if the elections are not free, fair, democratic and violence free.

But the target of his charge, SLPP candidate, Vice-President Solomon Berewa, was a no-show at the debate. His spokesman, Victor Reider, told VOA political violence was the reason why. "We want some of the leaders, especially the PMDC and the APC leaders, to make a clear and categorical statement against use of violence in this election," he said.

The candidates from SLPP, PMDC, and APC, or All People's Congress, are considered the top contenders to win the election. There have been violent clashes between supporters of these parties in the earlier weeks of the campaign.

The Tuesday debate comes less than a week before presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for Saturday. They are the first elections since peacekeepers left the country after the civil war ended, and the first time there is no incumbent running.

However, Berewa, the vice-president, is almost like an incumbent. President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah turned power over to him in 2002 and stepped back from an active role in government.

The debate was organized by the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists and Democracy Sierra Leone. The candidates had three minutes each to answer questions written in advance by the members of the journalists' association.

They addressed topics ranging from child mortality to brain drain.

Speaking about rampant unemployment among Sierra Leone's more than three-million youths, All People's Congress candidate, Ernest Bai Koroma, said it was a problem that needed immediate action. "This is not only a social disaster but an economic waste," he said.

He said, if he won the election, he would put youths to work in building roads, cleaning the garbage-strewn streets, and in farming. He also said he would implement training programs to give professional skills to youths.

But his opponent from the Convention People's Party, Andrew Turay, said education was more important. "All countries that have developed have emphasized education. It is not cheap, it is expensive. We have made it unaffordable to our own people and that is why our kids are out on the streets cleaning the streets of Freetown instead of being doctors or lawyers," he said.

A debate for the vice-presidential candidates was held on Sunday. Berewa's running mate, Momodu Koroma, was not present.

Sierra Leone, although rich in diamonds and other mineral resources, is ranked by the United Nations Development Index as among the world's poorest countries.