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Guinea holds first democratic poll since independence

image captionMany Guineans hope the vote heralds a new democratic era

Voters appear to have turned out in large numbers in Guinea to elect a new president, with reports saying people formed long, calm queues.

The vote is regarded as the West African country's first democratic election.

The poll follows a pledge by military ruler Sekouba Konate to return the country to civilian rule.

He has vowed not to stand or allow any members of his administration to do so.

About 4.2 million Guineans are eligible to vote. Twenty-four candidates are vying for the presidency.

Guinea has been ruled by a succession of military and civilian autocrats since independence in 1958.

The army seized power in 2008, following the death of strongman Lansana Conte, who had been in power for more than two decades.

The country descended into chaos last September, after troops opened fire on pro-democracy demonstrations in the capital, Conakry, killing more than 150 people.

'Judgment of history'

Voting was extended by two hours due to the queues.

"Voting is peaceful, orderly and there is a sense of excitement," said Yakubu Gowon, the former Nigerian leader who is heading the observation mission of US-based rights group the Carter Center, according to the Reuters agency.

Mr Gowon estimated a turnout of 75-80%.

The US embassy in Conakry issued a statement welcoming the peaceful voting: "Based on the assessment of local and international observers and our own election monitoring mission, the US embassy believes voting to have gone extraordinarily well particularly in the light of the significant time and logistical challenges."

As voting got under way on Sunday, Conakry resident Marieme Kande told AFP news agency: "I am happy to vote freely."

The BBC's Alhassan Sillah in the capital says there is real optimism that the vote could finally drive the army out of politics, leaving democratically chosen leaders to try to improve people's lives.

In neighbouring Liberia - where many Guineans fled violence in recent years - exiles have been voting in the capital Monrovia, with queues stretching 5km (3 miles).

The frontrunners are former Prime Ministers Cellou Dalein Diallo and Sidya Toure, and veteran opposition leader Alpha Conde.

On Saturday, Gen Konate said that the country was standing "before the judgement of history."

"Starting from now, it's up to you to make it happen," he told the candidates.

The choice, he added, was between "peace, freedom and democracy, or chaos and instability".

Despite having rich reserves of bauxite, iron and diamonds, Guinea is one of the poorest countries in the world.

Election results are expected within three days. As no candidate is likely to win outright, a run-off between the front-runners is due to take place on 18 July.

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