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Sierra Leone Voters Cast Ballots for Civilian Leaders

February 26, 1996

FREETOWN, Sierra Leone (AP) _ Sierra Leone voters went to the ballot box for the first time in a decade today, eager to place their impoverished, war-ravaged nation in civilian hands.

Voters began lining up before the polls opened at 7 a.m., despite confusion at the stations, fear of rebel attacks and incessant rumors that the elections would be canceled.

``People are enthusiastic about democracy and voting. They want a change,″ said Shilendra Singh, chairman of the Commonwealth observer group monitoring the vote.

There are 13 political parties fronting 13 presidential hopefuls and dozens of candidates vying for 68 seats in the new Parliament.

The front-runners in the presidential race are Ahmed Tejan Kabbah, a 60-year-old former U.N. official; John Karefa-Smart, an 80-year-old physician who was a top official at the World Health Organization; and John Karimu, 43, former secretary of state.

Final results were not expected until Tuesday. Since one candidate must win at least 55 percent of the vote, there likely will be a runoff in two weeks.

About 1.6 million people have registered to vote, representing only 60 percent of those eligible.

Rebels of the Revolutionary United Front, which have dragged the country through five years of civil war, had threatened to disturb the elections.

A RUF delegation met with Sierra Leone government officials in neighboring Ivory Coast for peace talks on Sunday. The two sides issued a statement Sunday night saying no agreement on a cease-fire had been reached but that talks would continue this week.

Sierra Leone was ranked by the United Nations last year as the second least developed country in the world, after another West African country, Niger. Nearly 75 percent of the population is illiterate and the per-capita income of $160 is one of the lowest in the world.

It appeared the elections would be derailed when a bloodless military coup on Jan. 16 toppled Capt. Valentine Strasser. His No. 2 man, Brig. Gen. Julius Maado Bio, declared himself head of state and called on political leaders to delay the elections until a rebel cease-fire could be reached.

But delegates to a national conference demanded the elections go ahead as scheduled.

The civil war has claimed more than 10,000 lives. At least one-third the country’s 4.5 million people have been forced to flee their homes.

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