ANJOUAN, Apr 16 (Reuters) Famous for its coup-laden history and links to legendary French mercenary Bob Denard, Comoros held the first round of presidential elections today intended to cement democracy on the Indian Ocean islands.
Under a power-sharing pact aimed at ending decades of strife among the palm-fringed archipelago's three islands, 117,000 voters on the isle of Anjouan were voting to whittle down 14 presidential hopefuls to three for a national election in May.
The largest island Grand Comore has the presidency now while the smallest, Moheli, is due to take it in 2010.
With Comoran security forces asked to keep a low profile due to past tensions, a 460-strong contingent of African Union (AU) soldiers and medics were on standby to ensure peace in Anjouan.
One person was bludgeoned to death with an iron bar in a row over politics several days before the poll, but early voting was peaceful today, witnesses said.
Many polling stations opened late with some not receiving voters even at midday, a Reuters reporter saw.
The president of the National Electoral Commission Abderemane Hilali said 2,000 under-age voters had been detected on the register and struck off before they could cast ballots.
One local photogapher, Ibrahim Youssouf, complained a Nigerian soldier in the AU contingent had confiscated his camera as he took a photo in a ballot station. It was later returned.
But on the whole, voters said it was calm. ''There seem to be no major incidents,'' said technician Said Ali.
FRENCH MERCENARY A popular tourist destination which relies on vanilla and cloves for export earnings, Comoros is perhaps best-known abroad for its cycle of 19 coups or attempted coups since independence from France in 1975.
The 76-year-old Denard, who is linked to various conflicts in Africa, awaits judgement from a Paris court for his alleged role in the 1995 coup that toppled then Comoran leader Mohammed Djohar and brought an intervention by French troops.
Comoros also has notoriety as the birthplace of east Africa's top al Qaeda suspect -- Fazul Abdullah Mohammed -- who is blamed for the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and a 2002 attack on an Israeli-owned hotel in Kenya.
And lying 300 km (180 miles) off the east African coastline, the Comoros chain's colourful history also includes serving as a sanctuary for pirates marauding in the Indian Ocean.
Some of the Comoros' 600,000 people doubt whether incumbent president Azaly Assoumani, who seized power in a bloodless coup in 1991 and was then elected in 2002, will step down peacefully.
Analysts and diplomats say Sunday's vote is therefore a crucial test of stability and, if the process is successful, foreign aid and loans will flow.
''This election is definitely seen as a turning point for the Comoros,'' said one western diplomat.
Popular Islamic leader and former member of parliament Ahmed Abdallah Mohamed Sambi, who has his own television and radio station in Anjouan, is one of the top contenders.
Other candidates include Caabi El-Yachroutu Mohamed, vice-president of the Union of Comoros who has close ties with international donors, and Abderemane Ibrahim Halidi, a teacher from a deprived area viewed as the candidate of the poor.
REUTERS CH BST2032