S Leone poll rivals squabble over early results

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FREETOWN, Sep 12 (Reuters) Opposition leader Ernest Bai Koroma claimed victory in Sierra Leone's presidential election but the ruling party accused him of trying to ''steal'' the poll as results trickled in from the weekend vote.

Official results with nearly two-fifths of votes counted from across the West African country showed Koroma of the All People's Congress (APC) on 60 per cent, ahead of Vice-President Solomon Berewa of the Sierra Leone People's Party (SLPP) on 40 percent.

National Electoral Commission head Christiana Thorpe said results from some polling stations had had to be invalidated.

''It is with regret that we report that, across the country, some polling station results forms report a higher number of votes cast than registered voters,'' she told reporters yesterday.

''As previously announced, the NEC will not tolerate any case of over-voting and will invalidate results as appropriate.'' Full official results were expected to take several days, but the two candidates were already squabbling over the result.

''There's no question of losing, it's not possible,'' Koroma told Reuters on Monday night, forecasting he would win with 55 percent as his cheering supporters drove through the streets of the capital Freetown in pick-up trucks and decorated city statues with bandanas and T-shirts in the APC colours of red.

But Berewa's SLPP refused to admit defeat.

''Let the opposition party leader wait until results are out.

He is trying to steal victory. We earn victory,'' SLPP spokesman Victor Reider said. He said his own party's calculations showed Berewa winning, but he declined to say by how much.

TEST The elections, which began on August 11, are seen as a test for the former British colony's recovery from a 1991-2002 civil war which was largely financed by illegal diamond mining.

The results dispute raised some fears of a return to the violence which tarnished campaigning, when clashes prevented Koroma from touring the south and east, bastions of SLPP support -- exposing ethnic rifts that the victor will have to address.

Foreign and local election monitors reported some cases of electoral fraud, including apparent ballot stuffing.

Results from some polling stations seen by Reuters showed one or other candidate with no votes -- despite each candidate having the right to post a representative at every polling station, where they then normally vote.

Berewa's SLPP criticised a report made yesterday by the European Union observer mission, which noted irregularities in eastern and southern districts, all SLPP strongholds.

''The EU observers are fomenting a state of war and chaos by giving the impression that votes cast in the area of the SLPP stronghold were not genuine votes,'' SLPP spokesman Reider said.

Both candidates' camps have alleged fraud and intimidation during the vote and each has already rejected results from certain areas they regard as biased towards the other.

Berewa has the backing of President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, who is standing down under the constitution after two terms.

But his campaign was dealt a blow when Charles Margai, a scion of Sierra Leone's foremost political dynasty who left the SLPP in 2006, backed Koroma after finishing third on Aug. 11.

Reuters TB VP0424

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