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Vote count delayed in East Timor

Technical problems held up vote counting across much of East Timor.

world Updated: Apr 10, 2007 11:31 IST

Technical problems held up vote counting across much of East Timor on Tuesday but the troubled nation's first presidential election since independence was praised as a success.

Voters cast their ballots on Monday with hopes of a new era for the tiny nation, choosing a replacement for the charismatic guerrilla leader Xanana Gusmao, who has held the office since full independence in 2002.

Despite fears of violence, allegations by rival politicians of voter intimidation and some last-minute scrambles for ballot papers, the vote was orderly and fair and turnout was high, observers said.

"At one place we were at, people were lined up -- literally 400 people in a line, breast to back -- like sardines in the hot sun for three hours to vote, and there was no tension there at all," said Australian MP David Tollner.

Tollner, head of a group of Australian election observers, said he was "extremely impressed" with the overall conduct of the vote and downplayed concerns about delays in tallying the results.

"On one hand people complain it's taking too long, but on the other hand there should be no doubt about the results when they come through," he said.

Current Prime Minister Jose Ramos-Horta, who shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1996 for his efforts to find a peaceful solution to the conflict that rocked the country, is among the favourites for the largely ceremonial job.

The election commission said counting was delayed due to "technical support like computers, printers and generators" everywhere except in the capital Dili, where Ramos-Horta had 30 per cent of an almost complete provisional count.

Fernando "Lasama" de Araujo, a former political prisoner in Indonesia and the chairman of the opposition Democratic Party, was on 25 percent in Dili, the commission said.

The ruling Fretilin party's candidate, Francisco "Lu-Olo" Guterres, and Fransisco Xavier do Amaral, the chairman of the Timorese Social Democrat Association party, were behind Lasama.

If no candidate gets more than 50 per cent nationwide, a run-off will be held.

But for a country that saw years of bloodshed under Indonesian rule after 1974, and an orgy of killing as it voted for independence in a UN-sponsored referendum in 1999, the peaceful vote was already seen as a success.

"Voting in the presidential election proceeded without major incidents of violence or intimidation, which is already a very good result for Timor-Leste," said Atul Khare, the head of the UN mission in East Timor, referring to country by its formal name.

The vote followed a turbulent year in East Timor. Foreign peacekeepers arrived in May to quell violence that left at least 37 people dead and forced over 150,000 people to flee their homes.

The violence erupted after then prime minister Mari Alkatiri dismissed hundreds of army deserters.

Firefights subsequently broke out between factions of the military, and between the army and police, and degenerated into gang violence.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said he hoped calm would prevail as the votes were tallied.

"The Secretary General is heartened that the election was conducted in a general atmosphere of order and calm, and that the initial indications show high voter turnout," his office said in a statement.

Eight candidates stood to replace Gusmao, who won a pre-independence vote. Monday's contest has been seen as a three-way race between Ramos-Horta, Lu-Olo and Lasama.

Officials were forced to scramble 5,000 extra ballot papers to remote locations following the high turnout. More than half the population of about one million was registered to vote.

First Published: Apr 10, 2007 11:27 IST