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East Timor votes for a new president

world Updated: Apr 09, 2007 12:14 IST
Reuters
East Timor polls

East Timorese streamed to the polls on Monday to vote for a new president, hoping the election can help end deep divisions after a year of instability in one of the world's youngest and poorest nations.

Over half-a-million voters are picking a new president in Monday's election, which outgoing President Xanana Gusmao says is a chance to demonstrate his nation is not a failed state.

Supporters of rival candidates clashed during campaigning last week, injuring more than 30 people and prompting international troops to fire tear gas and warning shots.

As truck loads of troops patrolled the streets of a sunshine-bathed Dili, voters poured into polling stations across the capital. Some had queued from before dawn.

"This election is important for the country's future. I hope the new president will lift us out of the crisis," said Rogerio dos Santos, a 30-year-old farmer waiting to cast his ballot in a polling station in an elementary school.

Turnout appeared to be high and although official results are not due until April 16, an electoral commission spokesman said preliminary results could emerge on Tuesday.

The capital was calm on Monday, although residents said that overnight two soldiers described as drunk fired shots while stopping traffic. No one was hurt in the incident, they said.

Campaigns have focused on how to reunite East Timorese, split by an east-west divide that erupted into bloodshed last May after the sacking of 600 mutinous troops from the western region.

Eight candidates are running, including Prime Minister Jose Ramos-Horta, a Nobel peace prize winner who spearheaded an overseas campaign for independence from Indonesia. If no one wins more than half the vote, a run-off will be held, a scenario some analysts see as likely.

Gusmao, an ally of Ramos-Horta, is not running for re-election but plans to seek the more hands-on post of prime minister in a separate parliamentary election later this year.

Free and fair, so far

Ramos-Horta, speaking to reporters while waiting to vote, said he was happy with the conduct of the election so far.

"Despite some flaws, despite some intimidation, it can be said to be free and fair," he said.

Around 3,000 international troops and police will patrol during the elections, while about 200 international observers are monitoring the voting.

"There have been a few problems in the districts but it's completely normal in any election," said Javier Pomes Ruiz of the EU monitoring mission

No figures have been released yet on voter turnout, but all districts reported many voters queuing outside polling stations before 7 a.m., a statement from the election logistics body said.

Some of the 700 polling stations are so remote the ballot papers had to be delivered on horses.

Gusmao has blamed last week's clashes on the Fretilin Party of ousted Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri, accusing its leaders of allowing supporters to provoke violence.

The party has denied the charges.

Fretilin's candidate, Francisco Guterres, a former guerrilla fighter known as "Lu'Olo", is a front-runner in the elections.

The electoral commission's spokesman said that in Kovalima district a warning letter would be sent to Guterres after his supporters had warned of consequences if people did not back their candidate,

However, the spokesman said: "Overall the election is going smoothly."

Julio Thomas of the National University of Timor Leste expects the poll to be a three-way race between Ramos-Horta, Guterres and the Democratic Party's Fernando de Araujo, who has backing from many young people.