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Tuesday, September 18, 2007

SIERRA LEONE: PRESIDENT ERNEST BAI KOROMA

Opposition leader Ernest Bai Koroma won Sierra Leone's presidential election after a run-off vote marked by tensions and some ballot fraud in the war-scarred West African state, electoral officials said on Monday.

The National Electoral Commission (NEC) declared the 53-year-old candidate of the All People's Congress (APC) the winner of the September 8 poll despite a threat by the ruling Sierra Leone People's Party (SLPP) to challenge the result in court.

Koroma, a former insurance executive turned politician who was runner-up in a previous 2002 presidential election, was due to be sworn in as head of state later on Monday.

This year's election was seen as a test of the former British colony's recovery from a 1991-2002 civil war, one of modern Africa's most brutal in which 50,000 people were killed and children were kidnapped, drugged and forced to fight.

Cheering supporters of Koroma, wearing the APC's red colours, celebrated in the streets of the coastal capital Freetown, blowing whistles, honking car horns and dancing.

But some later hurled stones and bottles at the SLPP party headquarters, smashing windows and forcing police to fire tear gas. At least one person was injured, eyewitnesses said.

The NEC said Koroma had won with 54.6 percent of valid votes, defeating his SLPP rival, Vice-President Solomon Berewa, who had 45.4 percent.

"Ernest Bai Koroma has been duly elected president of the Republic of Sierra Leone," NEC chairperson Christiana Thorpe told a news conference in Freetown.

APC spokesman Alpha Kanu said both Berewa and outgoing President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, who had backed his SLPP vice-president, had called to congratulate Koroma on his win.

"It is a complete victory for all Sierra Leoneans," Kanu told Reuters.

Disgruntled SLPP officials criticised the result, but it was not immediately clear whether they would formally contest it in the Supreme Court.

"The vote is incredible. It is fraud and part of an international conspiracy to effect regime change. I would not be surprised if we contest the result. People have a right to resist," SLPP National Secretary General Jacob Jusu Saffa said.

The run-off poll followed an inconclusive first-round ballot on August 11, in which the APC won a parliamentary majority. Some clashes between rival supporters marred campaigning for the decisive presidential vote.

The polls were the first since United Nations peacekeepers left two years ago, and many Sierra Leoneans hoped the election would help erase the bitter memories and divisions of a civil war financed by illegal "blood diamonds."

"Sierra Leone is coming from one of the most brutal wars in the world ... It's coming back to the world as a nation that can make good democratic changes," college lecturer Amos Turay said.

Some militant SLPP supporters were less conciliatory.

"We will never accept the result," said a former civil war combatant, who gave his name as Black Jesus.

The NEC's Thorpe said some instances of attempted fraud, including the stuffing and swapping of ballot boxes, had been discovered which led to the invalidation of some results. But these flaws were not sufficient to affect the final result.

Voter turnout was around 68 percent.

International observers had described the polls as generally transparent but had also reported some fraud. The official election results can be challenged by petition to the Supreme Court within seven days of their announcement.

***REUTERS

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