Politicians in troubled East Timor made an Easter Sunday appeal for peace as police said they had arrested about 200 people in the weeks leading up to today's presidential election.
The faithful in the devoutly Roman Catholic nation thronged churches for Easter mass and President Xanana Gusmao appealed in a radio broadcast for a vote free of bloodshed or coercion amid fears for the election's credibility.
"Don't use intimidation, don't use violence to force people to vote for your candidate or other candidates," said the former guerrilla leader who is not seeking re-election.
"I ask all the candidates in the name of society to accept the result of the election heartfully," he said.
The poll is the first for the impoverished nation since gaining independence in 2002.
Fernando "Lasama" de Araujo, one of eight candidates standing for the largely ceremonial post of president, and a contender to win, said he did not expect a fair election in the former Portuguese colony.
"I hope that UN police and other defense forces from Australia and New Zealand can work hard to guarantee at least a peaceful day tomorrow," he said after mass.
Lasama, chairman of the opposition Democratic Party, was one of four candidates who on Friday said they feared many attempts had been made to manipulate the election process.
About 200 people have been arrested in the weeks ahead of today's election, which will be secured by more than 4,000 local and international police backed by peacekeeping troops, officials said yesterday.
Deputy UN Police Commissioner Hermanprit Singh said that in addition to the arrests, a large number of gang leaders and members remained in custody.
"We have been able to ensure with the prosecutors ... their continued detention so that the people who could have been the source of trouble during the election remain behind bars," Singh said.
At least 32 people were injured in election-related clashes on Wednesday in and around the capital Dili although most of the campaign was peaceful, according to the UN.
Today's vote comes about one month after Australian troops from the international security force in East Timor killed five armed supporters of a renegade soldier, Major Alfredo Reinado, who is still on the loose.
Last May, the peacekeepers were dispatched after the unrest killed at least 37 people and forced more than 150,000 to flee their homes. Intermittent violence blamed on gangs has continued since, and about 37,000 people are still displaced.
Prime Minister Jose Ramos-Horta, who is in a three-way race with Lasama and ruling Fretilin party chairman Fransisco Guterres, said the country had reached a crossroads.
"It's a very important moment," the Nobel peace laureate said.
"We will have to follow the leader we are going to choose and help him so he can do this task better in the next five years," he said.
Reinado, criticized for his role in last year's bloody violence, urged voters to ditch East Timor's political establishment, including Ramos-Horta, Gusmao and Fretilin.
There had been fears the fugitive could destabilize today's vote but he remained silent during the two-week election campaign.
"We have to respect democracy with unity, peace and calm," Reinado said in a printed statement.
More than 522,000 people are registered to vote.
Gusmao yesterday handed ballot boxes to a polling booth in the capital Dili, where the cathedral was packed to overflowing with parishioners including refugees who live in nearby tents.