Congo held its first multiparty election in more than four decades Sunday, a colossal democratic exercise many hope will secure an end to years of fighting and corrupt rule that have devastated this gigantic, mineral-rich nation in the heart of Africa.
Congo's young President Joseph Kabila is the front-runner in a field of 33 hopefuls that includes ex-rebel leaders he once fought against who carved the nation into rival fiefdoms. He became president - and rebel leaders became vice presidents - three years ago in an appointed transitional government formed as part of a peace deal.
"Today is a chance to make a new beginning and to draw the line at all the war we have seen," 44-year-old engineer Jean-Pierre Shamba said after casting his ballot at a secondary school in the eastern town of Bunia guarded by a dozen blue-helmeted Moroccan peacekeepers.
Polling stations opened late in several cities, including Bunia, the central diamond city of Mbuji-Mayi and the capital, Kinshasa, where voters wore sweaters and shawls against a damp, pre-dawn cool. By midday, there were no reports of serious violence, though UN spokesman Jean-Tobias Okala said 11 voting stations were burned down by people opposed to the vote in the provinces of East and West Kasai, strongholds of veteran politician Etienne Tshisekedi, who is boycotting the poll.
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