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War-scarred Sierra Leone votes for change

FREETOWN (Reuters) - Sierra Leoneans desperate for change voted in huge numbers on Saturday in the first elections since U.N. peacekeepers left two years ago following a 1991-2002 civil war in the diamond-rich nation.

In jungle clearings and city slums, voters queued for hours to cast their ballots for a new president and 112 parliamentarians.

Despite fears of violence, voting was generally peaceful with only minor scuffles after polling stations closed. Officials counted votes by lamplight in the war-shattered coastal capital Freetown while people on the darkened streets clasped radios to their ears, awaiting results.

“Maybe now things are going to get better,” Freetown resident Abubakar Kamara said before voting in the west of the city. “We must vote in peace and show the world that Sierra Leone is a peaceful country.”

Five years after the end of the diamond-fuelled war, which killed 50,000 people, Sierra Leone remains the second least developed nation on earth. Most people earn less than a dollar a day and lack basic amenities in the former British colony.

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In the presidential race, Ernest Bai Koroma of the opposition All People’s Congress (APC) is expected to mount a strong challenge to Vice President Solomon Berewa, 69, candidate for the ruling Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP).

Early returns showed the APC ahead in its stronghold, Freetown.

President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, re-elected on a wave of post-war euphoria in 2002, is stepping down as required by the constitution amid anger at corruption which many voters believe has drained off substantial foreign aid.

“We have diamonds, gold and even oil. We should be one of the richest countries in Africa, but where does the money go?” said Abdul Bassie, 24-year old student, after voting in the second city of Bo, in the southeast.

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Days of torrential downpours eased on Saturday to the relief of officials who feared the rainy season could disrupt voting. Ballot papers have been transported by trucks, canoes and porters to polling stations in savannah, jungles and mountains.

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Some 2.6 million people were registered to vote -- roughly half the population -- and many arrived at dawn to oversee the work of electoral staff due to concerns over fraud.

Long lines snaked around voting booths in settlements of corrugated iron roofs set deep in the jungle, a Reuters correspondent travelling by helicopter said.

Observers said voting appeared peaceful, well-organised and orderly, but they emphasised the real test of the process was whether political leaders would accept the results.

“Generally the process went well. There were large crowds at polling stations across the country,” said Marie-Anne Isler, the chief EU observer. “But it is early days yet, so let’s see what happens tonight and in the coming days.”

Aside from its record on corruption, the SLPP faces a threat from the breakaway PMDC party led by Charles Margai, which is draining support in its southern fiefdoms, such as Bo.

If no presidential candidate wins more than 55 percent, a runoff will be held, probably in early September. The election commission will announce results as they come in but expects a meaningful trend to take several days to emerge.

Additional reporting by Naomi Schwarz