Freetown - Sierra Leone's watershed presidential and legislative elections were free and fair, international observers said on Sunday as ballot-counting progressed across the West African country.
A day after the first post-war Sierra Leonean-driven elections, seen as a test of whether the nation has fully emerged from its bloody civil war, the Commonwealth group of observers said the vote met international standards.
"We are inclined to believe that the conditions were such as to enable the people of Sierra Leone to express their will freely and in accordance with internationally accepted standards," Commonwealth observer chief Kenny Anthony said.
Voters came out in droves to peacefully cast ballots on Saturday to choose a new leader to succeed President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah and a fresh set of lawmakers to fill the 112-seat parliament.
Sierra Leone's National Elections Watch (NEW), a coalition of more than 100 local civic and non-governmental organisations which fielded 5,400 observers to watch over the vote, agreed the poll was free and fair.
"The elections have been by all standards peaceful, free, fair and credible," NEW spokesperson Ngola Katta told reporters.
The voting was marred by the late arrival of polling materials at some centres which he said was "unfortunate but understandable".
A European Union official expressed satisfaction at the management of the polls and voter turnout.
"It is calm and the management of the polls was very good... but we have to wait to see the reaction of the political parties (to the outcome)," said chief observer Marie-Annie Isler Beguin.
The contest was set to be tight between the ruling Sierra Leone People's Party (SLPP) and the All People's Congress (APC). But neither is tipped to win the absolute majority required to rule after the first round.
Partial results were due to start coming in Sunday, with Vice President Solomon Berewa of the SLPP expected to face a stiff challenge for president from APC's Ernest Koroma.
Early unofficial partial returns compiled by the country's Independent Radio Network from results obtained at counting centres showed the APC, the one-time sole ruling party, ahead of the SLPP.
Both parties appeared to have maintained dominance in their traditional strongholds, the APC in the north and the SLPP in the south where it was being challenged by the People's Movement for Democratic Change, an offshoot party.
If none of the presidential hopefuls garners at least 55 percent of the ballots cast the vote will go to a second round.
Complete preliminary results are expected by the end of the week.
Some 2.6 million voters out of the country's 5.5 million inhabitants were eligible to vote six years after the end of one of the deadliest civil wars in modern history, fuelled by so-called blood diamonds.
The war claimed around 120 000 lives and hundreds of thousands of survivors suffered horrific abuse at the hands of rebels, who specialised in hacking off people's limbs with machetes.
Seven parties fielded candidates for the presidential and parliamentary elections in this former British colony which is ranked the second poorest country in the world despite its huge mineral wealth.
Legislators are elected by a simple majority, and 566 candidates stood for the 112 seats in the single-chamber parliament.
The new government faces an uphill battle against poverty and corruption. Most of the infrastructure, including electricity generation and roads, were ravaged during the war.
The elections are only the second since Sierra Leone emerged from one of the most brutal wars in modern history, and the first locally-organised polls since 17 500 United Nations peacekeepers pulled out of the country in December 2005.