Fri, Sep 22, 2006 - Page 6 News List

Yemen President Saleh leading in ballot count


Yemen's incumbent President Ali Abdullah Saleh, in his first real electoral test in 28 years in power, held a massive lead in Wednesday's presidential election, early results showed.

Saleh won 82 percent of the vote while his main opponent, former oil minister Faisal bin Shamlan, garnered 16 percent, the head of the electoral commission Abdelwahab al-Charif announced late on Wednesday.

"These figures do not represent the final results," he added.

Yemenis went to the polls in force amid security concerns after the arrest of an al-Qaeda suspect authorities said was planning attacks on the capital.

Five people were killed and six wounded in clashes between the veteran incumbent's supporters and those of the opposition, prompting voting to be suspended in about a dozen of the nation's 5,620 polling stations, officials said.

Voting ended at 8pm after the electoral commission ordered the polls kept open for an extra two hours because of "the droves of voters heading for polling stations."

Yemeni television showed long queues of voters even before polling stations opened in the five-way presidential ballot, which was held simultaneously with municipal elections.

Nearly 90,000 troops and police were deployed to oversee voting by the 9.25 million eligible voters, 3.9 million of them women.

As voting was under way, a security official said a suspected member of al-Qaeda was caught in the capital armed with explosives.

"According to the early results of the investigation, the suspect had planned several terrorist attacks in the capital," he told reporters.

Women voters in the conservative Arabian peninsula republic turned up clothed from head to toe in black. They formed separate queues and were searched by policewomen as they entered the polling booths.

"Today is a real celebration of Yemen's democracy as we set the foundations for Yemen's future in [a way which allows] peaceful alternation of power," Saleh told reporters as he cast his ballot.

Saleh, who first took office as leader of the then North Yemen in 1978, has survived a 1994 civil war with the former communist south and al-Qaeda-inspired violence in Osama bin Laden's ancestral homeland, but now faces a challenger at the ballot box backed by both Islamists and former communists.

The 64-year-old father of seven, of the ruling General People's Congress, is being taken on by the 72-year-old bin Shamlan in a test of Washington's efforts to export democracy to the Middle East.

"These elections are different -- never before has the contest been so fierce," said Sanaa University political analyst Mohammed al-Sabri.

A queue of about 400 had formed before the start of balloting at a polling station in the Sanaa neighborhood of Hadda.

"This time there is a fair and honest competition and for the first time I feel that I am practicing a democratic right," said 34-year-old Abdel Ghani al-Fakih.

Bin Shamlan has made the "installation of a parliamentary democracy that will allow a peaceful transition of power" the centerpiece of his political platform.

Saleh announced on Saturday the arrest of an al-Qaeda-linked "terrorist" in bin Shamlan's entourage. Bin Shamlan team say the man had been employed for just seven days prior to the charge.

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