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East Timor: UN hails 'smooth' presidential vote as ballot counting begins

East Timor: UN hails 'smooth' presidential vote as ballot counting begins

Presidential candidates do Amaral, Gusmao vote today in Dili
A day after nearly 400,000 voters went to the polls in a "remarkably smooth" election, United Nations officials today began counting the ballots to determine who will become the first democratically chosen president of an independent East Timor.

The post-polling process has so far been problem-free, the UN Transitional Administration's (UNTAET) chief electoral officer said, after an estimated 86.3 per cent of East Timor's 439,000 eligible people cast their votes Sunday.

UNTAET chief Sergio Vieira de Mello called the vote "a truly historic moment" and congratulated the East Timorese for the high turnout.

"At this point, the electoral process is continuing as scheduled without any problems," Carlos Valenzuela, the head of UNTAET's Independent Electoral Commission, told a press conference this afternoon in the capital, Dili. "Parties were to file any complaints regarding polling by noon today. We so far have no word of any party complaints having been filed by the deadline."

All 13 district counting centres opened this morning and began the first phase of the counting process, ensuring that the number of ballots issued at each polling station matched the number found in that station's ballot box.

Four ballot boxes out of 933 were found to have broken seals when they arrived at the counting centres, Mr. Valenzuela said. Each seal was believed to have inadvertently broken during transport, and foul play was not suspected.

Many districts were expected to begin sorting and counting the ballots by the end of the day. Counting is scheduled to continue tomorrow, and some districts were expected to declare preliminary results ahead of the expected announcement of the final tally on Wednesday.

An estimated 379,116 people turned out on Sunday to choose between Legislative Assembly Vice President Francisco Xavier do Amaral and independence leader Xanana Gusmão in yesterday's election, the third and final vote run by the United Nations as it helps the former Portuguese colony in its transition to independence.

The two candidates voted together at a polling centre in Dili. After casting their ballots, the two shook hands and waved to a crowd of local and international media.

The president is the last fundamental piece of the East Timor government to put in place before UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan declares the territory independent during a ceremony in Dili on 20 May.

"The East Timorese have shown their enthusiasm for the democratic process that has taken root here," Mr. Vieira de Mello said after the close of polling. "That comes as no surprise to me. Like last year, the East Timorese have again proved to the world that maturity, security and tolerance is the 'Timorese way' of participating in elections."