By Patrick Nduwimana
BUJUMBURA, July 4 (Reuters) - Burundians vote for their national assembly on Monday, a key step toward selecting a president under a peace plan designed to end 12 years of ethnic bloodshed.
The election, the latest in a series of democratic polls this year that have progressed relatively steadily, began after clashes between the army and rebels that killed 18 last week. The military says the rebels are planning to disrupt voting.
The head of the United Nations mission to Burundi, Carolyn McAskie, urged voters to cast their ballot in defiance of any potential threats.
"I call upon all Burundians to go en masse to the polls and I call upon them not to yield to intimidation. It's their right to vote," McAskie told a press conference on Sunday.
"Security is in place. There is no reason to believe that there would be any disturbance."
Polls opened at 6 a.m. (0400 GMT) and were to close at 4 p.m. (1400 GMT).
The U.N. deployed 2,700 troops alongside local police and soldiers at polling stations, in a similar show of force as the June 3 communal elections.
The lone holdouts to the peace process, the Hutu Forces for National Liberation (FNL), were blamed for attacks during last month's poll. The attacks killed one and forced re-votes in six affected constituencies.
The FNL has promised the U.N. it would not disturb the voting this time unless provoked, McAskie said.
The vote is the latest stage of a U.N.-backed peace plan to end war between the Hutu majority and the politically dominant Tutsi minority that killed 300,000 in the tiny central African nation.
The national assembly and a senate to be elected in July by communal councils will select the president by two-thirds majority no later than Aug. 19. In 2010, Burundian citizens will elect the president directly.
Monday's election is third democratic poll in the coffee-producing nation this year, which had held none since its first multi-party elections in 1993.
After Hutu President Melchior Ndadaye was assassinated by Tutsi paratroopers a few months later, Burundi fell into a cycle of ethnic reprisals that lasted for more than a decade.
Voting is widely expected to follow ethnic lines, giving the Hutu majority -- 85 percent of the country's 7 million people -- the clear advantage.
Voters select parties rather than candidates, and the real question is which Hutu party will have the most control.
The former Hutu rebel Forces for the Defence of Democracy (FDD) are widely expected to lead, following a strong showing in provisional results from the communal elections.
Under the peace plan signed in 2000, the ethnic composition of the assembly is guaranteed to be 60 percent Hutu and 40 percent Tutsi, with three representatives drawn from the Twa pygmy ethnic group.
The national assembly is supposed to have 100 members, but the winning parties can appoint a total of 21 more if needed to ensure the 60-40 split.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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