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Fears and hopes as country votes in presidential run-off

Voters went to the polls Sunday in Guinea-Bissau, where two former heads of state are in a run-off election for president of the coup-ridden West African nation which has become a haven for drug runners.


AFP - Voters went to the polls in Guinea-Bissau Sunday for a presidential runoff between two former heads of state of the coup-prone West African nation, whose veteran leader was assassinated in March.

However, amid fears of violence when results are known, the country's army chief, General Zamora Induta, said candidates should turn to the courts if there are any disputes, warning on public radio that the military "will not allow any threat to public order, stability and internal peace".

The election was triggered by the killing of long-time president Joao Bernardo Vieira by soldiers on March 2, in an apparent revenge attack after the assassination of then army chief General Batista Tagme Na Waie in a bombing.

The runoff was between ex-presidents Kumba Yala and Malam Bacai Sanha, who won the biggest share of the vote in the first round on June 28. Sanha secured 39.59 percent of the first-round ballots -- a 10-point advantage over Yala.

Polls closed at 1700 GMT and there were no reports of incidents during the voting around the country, the National Electoral Commission (CNE) said. Preliminary results were expected to be announced in the next few days.

The head of the European Union's observer mission Johan Van Hecke said the vote ran in a "calm and orderly" atmosphere.

"The voting was better organised than in the first round," added Van Hecke, who was one of 21 EU observers among 150 international monitors of Sunday's poll

He also said turnout was around the same as the first round, which was at 60 percent, and "perhaps a little lower", he added, without giving a figure.

The African Union's special envoy Joao Miranda said he had met with both candidates and appealed for "calm and a spirit of fair play".

"They told me the loser would congratulate the winner and would promise to work with him to guarantee peace and stability," Miranda said.

Observers hope the new president will bring a degree of stability to the former Portuguese colony of 1.3 million people, which has suffered repeated coups since independence in 1974 and now is a haven for cocaine distributors.

"This election is very important because it will lead to the normalisation of the country," interim president Raimundo Pereira told reporters after casting his ballot.

"It's an important step so that we can work, to have legitimate state bodies."   

Nearly 4,900 soldiers, police and paramilitary were deployed to ensure security during Sunday's vote, according to the CNE.

Guinea-Bissau has been overwhelmed by the international drugs trade, becoming a key transit point in cocaine smuggling between South America and Europe.

Leaders of the small West African country have struggled to see out their mandates in recent times. None of the three presidents elected in the past 15 years has managed to complete his full five-year term.

The murder of Vieira, who ruled Guinea-Bissau for much of the past 25 years, came about a decade after the military ousted him during a previous stint as president.

Then in June, the army killed two senior political figures in what they claimed was an operation to foil a coup plot.

Sanha, 62, the candidate for the ruling African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC), served as interim president from June 1999 to May 2000.

Yala, 56, who is running Sunday as head of the Social Renewal Party, was forced out by the army in 2003.

Yala and Sanha have already faced each other in a second-round runoff for Guinea-Bissau's presidency in 2000, when Yala emerged victorious.

Both rounds of the election have been financed entirely by the international community at a cost of 5.1 million euros (7.2 million dollars).

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