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Page last updated at 17:20 GMT, Saturday, 18 July 2009 18:20 UK

Large turnout in Mauritania vote

Woman casts her vote in Nouakchott
Observers say campaigning has been vigorous but tolerant

Mauritanians have voted in large numbers in the first presidential poll since last year's military coup.

The man who led the coup, Mohamed Ould Abdelaziz, is seen as the front-runner, along with veteran opposition leader Ahmed Ould Daddah.

Hours before voting began, police in the capital arrested two alleged Islamic militants after a gun battle.

Mauritania's security chief said they were the men who murdered an American aid worker in Nouakchott last month.

"The two people arrested Friday night were the killers of the American, Christopher Leggett", Mohamed Lemine Ould Ahmed was quoted as saying by AFP news agency.

Al-Qaeda had claimed responsibility for the killing of Mr Leggett, accusing him of trying to convert people to Christianity.

The police said one of the men was wearing explosives around his body. They had erroneously reported earlier that the other had been killed.

Polling monitored

Voting is due to close at about 1900GMT.

Election observer Mohamed Hussein told the BBC that voting seemed to be going well.

"We have already visited a dozen polling stations," he said.

"We check that everybody is in place, that all the ballots and stationery is there, that the voting booths are there. Everything is going OK for the moment."

Mauritania has been led by a democratically elected leader for just one year since independence in 1960.

The desert nation has experienced several military coups and long periods of oppressive rule.

The 2007 elections won by President Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi are widely seen as the country's only free and fair poll, but he was toppled just a year later in August 2008 by Gen Abdelaziz.

Following the coup, it was suspended by the African Union and many donors cut off aid.

MAURITANIA
map
Dominated by light-skinned Arabic-speakers (Moors)
Slavery still practised, campaigners say
Black Africans complain of discrimination
Mostly in the Sahara Desert

Mauritanian journalist Hamdi el-Hacen says the elections have been the most hotly contested in some time.

He told the BBC's Network Africa programme that the campaigning has been vigorous but tolerant.

"It was very interesting to see people supporting different candidates standing alongside one another without any hatred, or quarrelling," he said.

Although the country is officially an Islamic republic, Mohamed Jamil Ould Mansour is the first Islamist to stand for the presidency.

The largely-desert country presents a cultural contrast, with an Arab-Berber population to the north and black Africans to the south. Many of its people are nomads.

During their campaigns, the contestants highlighted unemployment, illiteracy, poverty and poor infrastructure as their priorities.

"The country has been independent for 46 years but it is almost naked of any modern infrastructure," said Mr el-Hacen.

He says citizens are anxious to see how the desperate poverty, which he says affects more than half of the population will be alleviated.



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