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Liberians vote in nation's 1st election since end of civil war

MONROVIA, Liberia—Braving long lines and a bloody history, Liberians voted peacefully Tuesday in an election that many hoped would open an era of normalcy after 25 years of tyranny and civil war.

"We've all looked forward to seeing this day," said Ethel Johnson, 50. Johnson waited seven hours outside a school in this rundown West African capital to vote, surrounded by election monitors and United Nations soldiers who have guarded a delicate peace here since 2003.

The election was Liberia's first since a peace agreement ended a 14-year civil war that killed more than 200,000 people and turned this once-prosperous country into one of the world's poorest, lacking even electricity and running water.

Many Liberians saw the election as a historic chance for renewal in Africa's oldest independent republic—founded in 1821 by freed American slaves. Polling places struggled to manage a huge turnout.

Lines began forming several hours before daybreak at churches, darkened schools, windowless huts and abandoned market stalls, which served as polling places across the country. People waited on benches and blankets, voted behind cut-up cardboard boxes held together with ribbon and deposited ballots into plastic storage bins.

In Monrovia, some voting sites opened late as crowds waited impatiently in the thick humidity. By 6 p.m., when polls were to close, hundreds of people were still waiting, and election officials said anyone still in line would be allowed to vote.

Voting wasn't the only logistical hurdle. Election workers still must tally as many as 1.3 million paper ballots, and many of those ballots will come from the countryside, carried for days by porters crossing dense forest and mucky land due to the lack of passable roads. Official results aren't expected for at least two weeks.

At stake are 94 seats in a Senate and House of Representatives modeled after the American system and a presidency contested by 22 candidates—including members of past governments and two former warlords.

The two leading presidential contenders couldn't be more different. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, 66, touts her Harvard education and experience as finance minister and as an economist for the World Bank. George Weah, 39, is a high school dropout who went on to soccer stardom in Europe and a massive fortune.

Observers say the race has split Liberia's electorate between educated voters and women—who tend to favor Johnson-Sirleaf—and younger first-time voters, many of them male former fighters—who overwhelmingly back Weah.

If no candidate wins a majority, the top two vote-getters will compete in a runoff.

Whoever wins must deal with the lingering human toll of the war. Some 6,200 refugees remain in camps and tens of thousands of ex-combatants are still jobless even after turning in their weapons under a U.N.-run disarmament program.

In rural Tubmanburg, an old mining town that alternated between government and rebel control during the civil war, former combatants stood alongside former victims waiting to vote. All talked of burying the past and building peace.

"All the time we fight, we destroy lives, we destroy property, and nothing is gained," said Isaac Flomo, 28, who started fighting in a rebel militia at age 12.

"I have lost almost 75 percent of my life. I believe my vote is my future, my vote is my education, my vote is my everything."

The election capped a spirited two-month political campaign largely free of violence and was seen as a victory for the United Nations, which has run Liberia almost as a protectorate, and for donors such as the United States, which spent $10 million to help register and educate voters and train observers.

"This is an unprecedented commitment by the international community being deeply and permanently involved," said former President Jimmy Carter, a veteran election observer who helped lead a multinational team of observers to Liberia.

"The total commitment by the people who live here and also by foreigners is to ensure peace in Liberia, and I believe peace will be maintained."

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(Bengali reported from Monrovia; Charles reported from Tubmanburg.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): LIBERIA

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