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Authorities begin counting votes in Haitian elections

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- Guarded by UN troops, mules carrying sacks of ballots trotted down from mountain villages yesterday as authorities began the slow process of collecting and tabulating election results.

Scores of UN peacekeepers patrolled quiet streets of the capital as Haitians eagerly awaited the returns from Tuesday's vote, the first since a bloody uprising ousted former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide two years ago.

The polls, guarded by the 9,000-strong UN force, were fraught with delays early in the day but largely free of the violence that has plagued the capital since Aristide fled.

The leading contender heading into the vote was Rene Preval, a 63-year-old agronomist and former president widely supported by Haiti's poor masses.

The soft-spoken Preval, Haiti's only leader to finish his elected term, is a former ally of Aristide, who is in exile in South Africa.

Preval's closest rivals include Charles Henri Baker, 50, a wealthy garment factory owner, and Leslie Manigat, 75, who was president for five months in 1988 until the army ousted him.

More than 50 percent of the 3.5 million registered voters were believed to have cast ballots, said David Wimhurst, a UN spokesman, adding that a precise figure wasn't yet available.

''I think no one can deny the legitimacy of this process because people really participated," said Juan Gabriel Valdes, the special UN envoy to Haiti.

However, he conceded that polls opened too late and ''some people were not even able to vote."

Senate candidate Myrlande Manigat, the wife of Leslie Manigat, said initial reports from party representatives monitoring the vote count indicate Preval has a big lead in her western district, which includes much of metropolitan Port-au-Prince and outlying areas.

Preval was in his rural hometown of Marmelade and wasn't speaking to reporters.

If no candidate wins a majority, a runoff between the top two vote-getters will be held March 19.

Election workers counted votes by candlelight overnight and resumed early yesterday, Wimhurst said, adding that the process was gaining momentum but still going ''very slowly" because of delays retrieving ballots from rural areas.

''The hardest part is getting ballots back to the capital," where the vote tabulation center is located, Wimhurst said. ''In some cases, it will take two days to get ballots from outlying areas."

Initial results were expected to be released after 20 percent of the vote is counted, said Stephan Lacroix, a spokesman for Haiti's electoral council. Final results are expected later this week.

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