Voting is heavy, peaceful as Liberians choose a leader Many outside monitors are on hand to observe

THE BALTIMORE SUN

MONROVIA, Liberia -- Under the unusually attentive eyes of a world that normally ignores it, this African nation founded by American slaves went to the polls yesterday in what is hoped will be its first free and fair election.

Liberians were selecting a president from 12 candidates and a Parliament through proportional representation.

Former President Jimmy Carter is here to watch, along with a White House special envoy and delegations from the United Nations, the European Union, the Organization of African Unity and other organizations. About 500 outside monitors are in the country to keep an eye on about 2,000 polling places.

In a capital that normally has only two FM radio stations, there are temporarily eight, one set up by the United States and one by the Roman Catholic Church. Three of the others are controlled by former faction leaders.

To make sure rural Liberians hear the news, the United Nations has handed out 5,500 wind-up radios, to avoid the need for electricity, which is scarce, or batteries, which are expensive.

By early afternoon in Monrovia, there appeared to be a large turnout at the polls, and voting was proceeding without incident.

With no reliable opinion polls, what will happen in the voting is anybody's guess. Among the 13 candidates are two leading antagonists, each boasting with absolute certainty that he or she will collect the 51 percent needed to win on the first ballot.

The first is Charles Taylor, 49, who was both a student and a prison escapee in Massachusetts before returning to Liberia in 1989 to lead a coup. That led to intervention and occupation by troops from other West African countries, a brutal seven-year civil war in the countryside and the destruction of much of Monrovia last year.

The second is Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, 58, a Harvard-educated former Citibank vice president and U.N. official in charge of African development. She once supported Taylor in his coup against the dictator Samuel K. Doe but changed her mind as the ensuing war became increasingly vicious.

Pub Date: 7/20/97

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