Koroma wins Sierra Leone election, takes office

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FREETOWN, Sep 17 (Reuters) Opposition leader Ernest Bai Koroma was sworn in as Sierra Leone's president today after winning a run-off vote marked by political tension and some cases of ballot fraud in the war-scarred West African state.

The 53-year-old former insurance executive, who was runner-up in the 2002 presidential poll, took the oath of officebefore the chief ustice at State House in the capital Freetown.

The National Electoral Commission (NEC) earlier declared the All People's Congress (APC) candidate the winner of the September 8 poll, despite a threat by the ruling Sierra Leone People's Party (SLPP) to challenge the result in court.

Although sporadic violence had marred campaigning for the run-off, international observers hailed the election as an important step in the former British colony's recovery from the brutal 1991-2002 civil war.

''It's a great moment. It sends a very strong message that it is possible to hold credible elections in Africa,'' Victor Angelo, head of the United Nations mission in the poor nation of 5.7 million people, told Reuters.

Cheering Koroma supporters, wearing the APC's red colours, celebrated in the streets of the coastal capital, blowing whistles, honking car horns and dancing.

But some hurled stones and bottles at the SLPP party headquarters, smashing windows and forcing police to fire tear gas. At least one person was injured, eyewitnesses said.

The NEC said Koroma had won with 54.6 per cent of valid votes, defeating his SLPP rival, Vice-President Solomon Berewa, who had 45.4 per cent.

APC spokesman Alpha Kanu said outgoing President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, who had backed his vice-president, and Berewa himself had called to congratulate Koroma on his win. ''It is a complete victory for all Sierra Leoneans,'' Kanu told Reuters.

HOPES FOR FUTURE Disgruntled SLPP officials criticised the result, but it was not immediately clear whether they would formally contest it in the Supreme Court within the required period of seven days.

''The vote is incredible. It is fraud and part of an international conspiracy to effect regime change. I would not be surprised if we contest the result. People have a right to resist,'' SLPP National Secretary General Jacob Jusu Saffa said.

The run-off poll followed an inconclusive first-round ballot on August 11, in which the APC won a parliamentary majority.

Clashes between rival supporters raised tension during campaigning for the decisive presidential vote.

The polls were the first since UN peacekeepers left two years ago, and many Sierra Leoneans hoped the election would help erase the bitter memories and divisions of a civil war financed by illegal ''blood diamonds''.

The conflict killed 50,000 people and was marked by shocking cruelty in which civilians had limbs hacked off and children were kidnapped, drugged and forced to fight as soldiers.

''Sierra Leone is coming from one of the most brutal wars in the world ... It's coming back to the world as a nation that can make good democratic changes,'' college lecturer Amos Turay said.

NEC chairman Christiana Thorpe said some attempts at fraud, including stuffing and swapping ballot boxes, had been uncovered but had not affected the result. Turnout was around 68 percent.

REUTERS AM As2359

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