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Republic of Congo Holds Election

March 11, 2002

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BRAZZAVILLE, Republic of Congo (AP) _ President Denis Sassou-Nguesso was poised for an easy victory Sunday in elections he said would restore democracy after back-to-back civil wars.

But the party of opposition leader Andre Milongo, who withdrew his candidacy Friday, slammed the poll as a ``masquerade″ aimed at legitimizing a post that Sassou-Nguesso seized by force five years ago.

Milongo’s pullout left Sassou-Nguesso facing six challengers, none of whom was considered a serious threat. It wasn’t clear when final results would be available.

In the capital, Brazzaville, voting picked up slightly through the day after a slow start. At one shop selling bread, lines were longer than those at most polling stations, which included schools, government buildings and even several bars.

Small groups of police and soldiers stood guard at otherwise empty corners all over the riverside city, as children took advantage of light traffic to play ball in the streets. The government banned unauthorized vehicles from the roads and sealed the nation’s borders for the day in an effort to prevent possible vote-rigging.

Electoral officials reported minor irregularities, including insufficient ballots at some polling stations and confusion over where people should go to vote, but said these were addressed. There were no reports of violence.

``I am satisfied to know that the vote is taking place peacefully across the country. This is a good thing for our democracy,″ said Sassou-Nguesso, who arrived in dark sunglasses and a tan suit to cast his ballot at a local government office decorated with yellow flowers. He and his wife were the only voters there at the time.

Milongo, a former prime minister, accused authorities of a lack of fairness and transparency and urged his supporters to boycott the vote. It was unclear whether they had heeded the call.

His campaign director, Thierry Moungalla, protested that the electoral commission set up by the government was not independent.

``If you fix all the rules, and you organize the process yourself, you’ve won before it starts,″ he said Sunday.

A spokesman for Sassou-Nguesso’s campaign, Alain Akouala, conceded there had been minor problems with the vote but said it was fair.

Joaquim Miranda, head of a 43-member European Union observer mission, said his team had detected no major problems in the run-up to the vote.

``Essentially what we want to see is that the results of the election reflect the desires of the population,″ Miranda said.

At several polling stations, the locks required to seal ballot containers were only placed on after journalists asked where they were.

Sassou-Nguesso, 59, first took power in a popular revolt in 1979, heading a one-party Marxist state until he was defeated by Pascal Lissouba in the country’s first democratic elections in 1992.

Parliamentary elections the following year sparked fighting between Sassou-Nguesso and Lissouba loyalists, among others. The two were to face each other at the polls in 1997, but violence erupted again and Sassou-Nguesso seized power.

Fighting broke out the next year and ended with a 1999 cease-fire.

An estimated 1.7 million of the nation’s 2.9 million people were registered to vote Sunday. The winner must take more than 50 percent of the vote or face a runoff April 7 with the second-place finisher.

Republic of Congo, an oil-rich country bordering the much larger Congo, gained independence in 1960.

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