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Sierra Leoneans voted Saturday in general elections as the west African country continues to recover from a brutal civil war while beginning to reap the benefits of a mining boom.
Long lines snaked around polling stations in the capital Freetown and in the provinces as voters queued up for hours before voting began shortly after 0700 GMT.
The third elections since the 11-year conflict ended a decade ago will hand the victorious party stewardship of the lucrative mining boom.
The presidential, parliamentary and local polls are being closely watched by the international community which has helped Sierra Leone since the war.
While still one of the world's poorest nations, Sierra Leone is rich in mineral resources, and massive iron ore stores are expected to add 21 percent growth in 2012 to its $2.2 billion (1.7 billion euro) gross domestic product, the International Monetary Fund estimates.
In the community of Christ Church in the centre of the capital, 26-year-old carpenter Joseph Lamin was the first to cast his ballot.
“I have queued up since 11:00 pm (2300 GMT) last night and I am very excited about the polls. I am voting for more investment to come to Sierra Leone and for a good leader to be elected,” he said.
In Kenema, the country's third-largest city, voters queued up as early as 3:00 am.
“I am so excited, we want a good leader who would provide jobs for the young,” said Aminata Toure, 19, voting for the first time.
The presidential election is regarded as a tight race between incumbent Ernest Koroma of the All People's Congress and ex-military leader Julius Maada Bio of the Sierra Leone People's Party.
Koroma, 59, is seen as the favourite, but by a thin margin. He has been praised for ushering in investors and overseeing an infrastructure boom, although his detractors say it has been marred by rampant corruption.
Despite a somewhat murky past as a putschist who briefly held power in 1996, Bio has amassed significant support among those who feel Koroma's development has not improved grinding poverty and sky-high unemployment levels. - Sapa-AFP