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Counting starts in Solomon Islands poll

Written by: Staff

HONIARA, Apr 6 (Reuters) Counting of votes in the Solomon Islands election started today after an incident free poll in the troubled South Pacific nation, but security concerns saw one counting centre moved closer to a police station.

The Solomons election on Wednesday was the first poll since foreign troops restored peace three years ago and follows a 2001 election marred by armed gangs and reports of vote rigging.

The election saw a very high voter turn out, said government spokesman Johnson Honimae, with people travelling by boat, motorised canoe and on foot from remote villagers to cast ballots.

''It has been a great success ... despite some little hiccups that came up,'' Chief Electoral Officer Musu Kevu told reporters.

In 2003 the Solomons was on the verge of collapse with armed gangs fighting over the capital Honiara, prompting Australia to lead a multi-national force to restore peace in the biggest military deployment in the South Pacific since World War Two.

Thousands of stolen, home-made and old World War Two weapons were destroyed by the South Pacific intervention force.

Government corruption was the main issue at the election called by Prime Minister Alan Kemakeza. Several ministers have been arrested on corruption charges in the past year.

A total of 453 candidates from 13 parties contested 50 seats.

Electoral officials say it could take up to 10 days for a final count, due to the remoteness of polling stations. Some electoral officers have been told not to try and transfer ballot boxes to counting centres until rough seas subside.

The Solomons is a chain of 992 islands covering 1.35 million sq km of ocean, with the furthest electorate a 2.5-hour flight and three-day boat trip away, or a seven day boat trip.

Difficulties in registering voters in remote villages saw some people unable to cast a ballot after finding their name missing from electoral rolls.

''The registration system does still need a lot of work. Its impractical for this country,'' Alistair Legge, manager of the Electoral Assistance Programme, told Radio New Zealand.

''Its not designed to cope with nine provinces, nine hundred plus islands, great distances, very mobile population,'' he said.

Concerns that counting may be disrupted by disgruntled voters forced one counting centre to be moved to a church which was closer to a police station, in the hope that religious villagers would respect the sanctity of the church.

''The precaution was taken as ... instances such as stone-throwing and minor skirmishes were known to have happened in the past,'' said electoral officer Andrew Melanolu.

Political analysts say once a final result is declared it will still take days of ''horsetrading'' to form a government, with the prime minister elected in a secret parliamentary ballot.

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