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Last Updated: Thursday, 8 April, 2004, 15:26 GMT 16:26 UK
Algerians vote for new president
Algerian man votes in Algiers
Western diplomats say the election could be Algeria's freest yet
Voting in the Algerian presidential election has been taking place in an optimistic atmosphere, despite allegations of expected fraud.

Of the six candidates, incumbent Abdelaziz Bouteflika is regarded as the favourite to win.

But former prime minister Ali Benflis is seen as his main challenger, and could force the vote to a second round.

TV pictures showed women in headscarves lining up to vote - but in some Berber regions voters are boycotting the poll.

BBC correspondent Mohamed Arezki Himeur, in Tizi-Ouzou, capital of the Berber-speaking region of Kabylie, says protesters have erected burning barricades in Les Jenets area.

He says that in some areas, there are no polling stations.

But the AFP news agency said residents were reporting voting in Kabylie's second city Bejaia to be going ahead normally.

Berber activists want their Tamazight language to be given equal status to Arabic.

Wide choice

The five opposition candidates accuse the president of having exploited his control of state television, the courts and the treasury to gain unfair advantages over them.

PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATES
Abdelaziz Bouteflika - incumbent
Ali Benflis - former prime minister
Saad Abdallah Djaballah - moderate Islamist
Louisa Hanoune - first ever female contender
Said Sadi - Berber campaigner
Ali Fawzi Rebain - Human rights campaigner

But Western diplomats in Algiers say the poll appears to be the fairest since multi-party politics was introduced in 1989.

Some 120 international observers have been keeping an eye on proceedings, and in an unprecedented move the military has promised to remain neutral.

Counting is due to start at 2000 local time (1900 GMT), with early indications shortly afterwards.

Results are expected on Friday morning.

"This is the first time that we are voting in such an honest, fair manner," said Melek Fellous, 42, who owns a security company.

A man who gave his name as Samir said he was voting for the first time at age 40 since he felt it was "for real this time".

Some were less convinced, but took a pragmatic view.

"Some countries have been independent for 200 years and still have trouble with democracy. How can you expect to learn it overnight?" asked retired civil servant Mourad Lamari.

Critics say Mr Bouteflika is an autocrat with no respect for democracy, but his supporters credit him with having restored peace to the country.

The other candidates are a moderate Islamist, a left-wing woman and two politicians from the Berber-speaking region of Kabylie.

Fraud claims
Supporters of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika
Bouteflika's face has dominated the election campaign

Mr Bouteflika's rivals accuse him of planning to rig the election and of having abused his office to further his re-election chances.

They cite his nightly appearances on television, for months touring the country and distributing public funds.

Three of the opponents have alleged a plot in which the president will declare victory with 53-55% of the first round vote, before ballots have been fully counted.

"He can't win in the first round without using fraud," said a spokesman for candidate Said Sadi.

But many Algerians are grateful for the decline of political violence in recent years, attributed to the amnesty Mr Bouteflika offered to Islamic militants to lay down their arms.

They also say he has restored Algeria's international standing after years of isolation.

At least 100,000 Algerians died in an Islamist insurgency sparked off in 1992 by the army's cancellation of a parliamentary election.




WATCH AND LISTEN
The BBC's Heba Saleh
"Candidates have not presented any evidence to back their claim that the vote will be rigged"




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