Liberians pray for peace

War-ravaged Liberia voted to choose its first post-war president in a heated run-off pitting an international soccer star who dropped out of high school against the country's Harvard-educated top female politician. With United Nations helicopters buzzing over the bombed-out capital, many prayed the vote on Tuesday would herald an era of peace after decades of conflict that displaced a third of the West African nation's three million people and left up to 200 000 dead.

"We've been killing each other too much. There's gonna be a change in Liberia this time around," 27-year-old university student Saviour Dixon said in the Liberian patois after voting at a bullet-splattered warehouse.

One-time Fifa player of the year George Weah and former finance minister Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf finished first and second in the October 11 first round, which weeded out 20 other candidates, including warlords and rebel leaders.

Weah's ascent from Monrovia's slums to international soccer stardom has had great appeal in a dirt-poor country short on heroes. He has no experience in the government, but that is seen as a plus by many in a country long-ruled by coup leaders and warlords.

Johnson-Sirleaf boasts a master's degree in public administration from Harvard University and has a rйsumй full of top postings in the government and UN. But her role in past, failed governments is seen as a drawback by some. If successful, she would become Africa's first elected female president. Alan Doss, head of the UN mission in Liberia, declared the vote "peaceful and transparent", though UN troops arrested five people in different parts of the country for minor incidents, the most grave being an assault on electoral staff.

"Today's run-off election offered the people of Liberia an opportunity to leave behind the conflict that has devastated this country for so long and turned the page on a very dark chapter in their history," Doss told reporters.

Most polls closed on time at 6pm local time. After nightfall, electoral workers began counting ballots by the light of fluorescent lanterns, required because the city's electricity supply was destroyed during fighting. Initial results were expected within days.

Across the country, Liberians voted patiently and peacefully, standing in lines delineated by candy-cane striped tape.Before voting began at Monrovia's Seventh Day Adventist School, six electoral workers gathered in a circle and prayed.

Augustin Forkpa was first in line. Marking his choice behind a white cardboard box, he made the sign of the cross against his chest and dropped his ballot into a clear plastic container.

"We're hoping for a better future; we've been suffering too long," said Forkpa, a finance ministry worker who voted for Johnson-Sirleaf. "We hope this election will do us something better."

Up the road at a seaside cultural centre, Weah -- escorted by blue-helmeted UN troops and bodyguards -- marched to the front of the line, cast his ballot and was immediately mobbed by a throng of reporters.

Answering questions in English, French and Italian, Weah said that if elected, "My first priority will be peace -- bringing people together to sit down at the table and see how better we can move Liberia forward."

His voice was growly and low after days of campaigning.

Dressed in white down to his shoes, Weah escorted his mother to a neighbouring polling booth before driving off in a dark blue sedan with tinted windows.

Johnson-Sirleaf travelled to the wartime rebel stronghold of Tubmanburg, 80km west of Monrovia, to lodge her vote. Appearing relaxed and smiling, she expressed confidence.

"All Liberians should go out and vote their conscience for the betterment of their lives and their country," she told reporters, wearing her trademark reading glasses. "I'm very confident that the Liberian people will vote for me." Founded by freed American slaves in the mid-1800s, Africa's first republic was once among its most prosperous, rich in diamonds, ancient forests and rubber.

A coup in 1980, which saw Cabinet ministers stripped, tied to poles and shot on the beach, kicked off years of strife. Johnson-Sirleaf was among the few Cabinet ministers to survive that post-coup purge, though she was jailed and forced to flee the country, reports the AP. I.L.

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