Tense Togo awaits result of vote for new leader

By John Zodzi and Silvia Aloisi

LOME, April 24 (Reuters) - Security forces and opposition supporters in Togo clashed on Sunday at the end of a tense day of voting for a new president and there were fears of more street violence when the winner is declared.

The poll pitted Faure Gnassingbe, the 39-year-old son of Togo's former president Gnassingbe Eyadema, against a coalition of six opposition parties and effectively became a referendum on four decades of repressive rule by Eyadema's northern clan.

As night fell in the capital, barricades of burning tyres clogged a road leading to opposition strongholds, heavily-armed soldiers patrolled in pickups with mounted machineguns and both sides accused each other of fraud and intimidation.

Gnassingbe was named president by the army, in violation of the constitution, when his father died on Feb. 5 but agreed to step down and hold polls after an international outcry.

Togo acts as a port for landlocked neighbours in the region and African leaders, eager to improve the continent's image, are keen for a peaceful and democratic resolution to the crisis.

While there was no general explosion of violence, hospital workers and party officials said at least 20 people were hurt, including two ruling party militants with machete wounds and five people who were shot in the opposition stronghold of Be.

Residents said the security forces who had come to take away ballot boxes in Be fired tear gas at opposition demonstrators.

A doctor at a clinic in Be said he had received four injured, two with serious gunshot wounds. A nurse at a hospital in Be said 14 people were treated for injuries -- supporters from both sides and election officials -- including three who had been shot.


Acting Interior Minister Katari Foli-Bazi told Reuters the security forces had been told to remove ballot boxes if it was not safe to count them on the spot and that people massing outside polling stations "could be a source of trouble".

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan appealed for calm ahead of the official results and urged the parties to refer any electoral disputes to the appropriate authorities.

Softly-spoken Gnassingbe said on Sunday he was confident he would win. He pledged to form a government open to all parties if victorious and fight for more justice and freedom.

"The majority of Togolese want calm and above all peace," he said after voting at a school next to the Lome barracks where his father -- a soldier, coup leader and wrestling champion -- used to sleep during his presidency.

The opposition coalition has named a single candidate, Emmanuel Akitani-Bob, 74, to challenge Gnassingbe.

"Ninety percent of the Togolese people want change after all they were subjected to by an intolerable regime for nearly 40 years," Akitani-Bob told reporters after casting his vote.

Weeks of opposition protests demanding a delay and deadly battles between rival supporters armed with machetes and clubs have fuelled fears of violence, especially if Gnassingbe is declared the winner -- as most analysts expect.

"Enough is enough. We want a change," said unemployed Theodore Teva, 27. "If the (ruling party) declares victory there's going to be trouble."

The polls closed at 1700 GMT. In the morning, long queues snaked outside polling stations, particularly in Be where the late arrival of electoral material delayed the start of voting.

Turnout seemed high and Foli-Bazi told reporters that by 1300 GMT, it stood at 52 percent.

The opposition says voter lists have been grossly inflated in some areas and that the distribution of electoral cards has been skewed to favour the ruling party. Opposition officials also said unidentified armed men had seized equipment they had planned to use to collate results from an office in Lome.

The third candidate is Harry Olympio, a minor opposition politician who was a minister under Eyadema. A fourth candidate, Nicolas Lawson, quit the race on Saturday alleging fraud.

(Additional reporting by Noel Tadegnon and Finbarr O'Reilly)


Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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