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Sierra Leone: Vote tallying underway following general election

Election officials start counting votes at a voting station in Freetown on June 24, 2023 during the presidential vote   -  
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JOHN WESSELS/AFP or licensors

Sierra Leone

Vote counting began in Sierra Leone on Saturday following a mostly peaceful general election despite a late start in some polling stations, as the opposition denounced alleged irregularities.

President Julius Maada Bio is seeking a second term amid a crippling cost-of-living crisis that sparked deadly riots last year.

Twelve men and one woman are vying for the top job, though Bio's main challenger is Samura Kamara of the All People's Congress (APC).

Bio, 59, of the Sierra Leone People's Party (SLPP), narrowly beat Kamara, who is aged 72, in a runoff in 2018.

Polling stations were scheduled to open at 7:00 am and close at 5:00 pm (1700 GMT), but many stations in the capital Freetown opened late, AFP journalists saw.

By 5:40 pm (1740 GMT), tallying had begun at the Aberdeen Police Station in Freetown, AFP journalists saw.

Many stations were likely to remain open longer, after the electoral commission confirmed in a statement that all voters in queue at 5:00 pm would be allowed to vote.

"Polling is going on in a relatively peaceful manner," the commission said in a statement. "There were logistical challenges in some polling centres relating to the late arrival of materials."

- Delays -

After casting his ballot at the Wilberforce Barracks in Freetown on Saturday morning, Bio encouraged citizens to participate peacefully.

"Go out and vote -- it's your right," he said. "Vote safely. If you win, celebrate safely."

Kamara voted in the Freetown neighbourhood of Lumley, telling reporters that "This election is about the future of Sierra Leone".

But he said the polling station -- which opened more than two hours late, an AFP journalist saw -- was "congested".

"Don't be surprised if there is confusion," he said.

Kamara has for weeks lambasted the electoral commission for alleged bias in favour of the governing party.

National Election Watch, a coalition of civil society groups, said 84 percent of the polling stations it was observing had opened by 8:00 am.

However, only 59 percent of stations in the Freetown area had opened by that time.

Two AFP journalists arrived at a polling station in central Freetown on Saturday afternoon where voting was just getting underway. A soldier present told AFP voting had started at 2:00 pm.

"I am so impressed by the resilience and fortitude of... voters -- many of whom stood in line for hours in the hot sun to exercise their right to vote," US Ambassador David Reimer said on Twitter.

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