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The BBC's Mark Doyle
"The general was surrounded by armed soldiers as he exorted citizens to vote 'yes'"
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Sunday, 23 July, 2000, 16:20 GMT 17:20 UK
Ivory Coast votes on new constitution
An official numbers ballot boxes ready for the referendum
Observers say there could be a high abstention rate
The military ruler of Ivory Coast, General Robert Guei, has been touring the capital, Abidjan, urging people to vote for constitutional amendments which could pave the way for a return to civilian rule.

General Guei, who came to power in a coup in December, was among the first to vote in the referendum.

"The people drew up this text. I responded to the will of the people," he said as he cast his ballot.

The BBC West Africa correspondent says the vote has exposed ethnic tensions in what used to be one of West Africa's most stable countries.

Mr Guei wore a civilian suit but was accompanied by three military junta members in uniform, as hundreds of troops patrolled the city's streets.

Voting is taking place under a state of emergency, with security stepped up at key installations.

Guei speaks on television
General Guei is expected to run for president

One proposed constitutional amendment prevents people standing in presidential elections unless both their parents are Ivorian. It has provoked anger in a country where nearly one-third of the population is of foreign extraction.

There are suspicions that the provision was included to prevent a key opposition leader, Alassane Ouattara, from standing in presidential elections scheduled for 17 September.

Mr Ouattara's opponents say he is from neighbouring Burkina Faso. He says he is Ivorian.

Referendum hitches

All the main political parties are supporting a 'yes' vote in the referendum, and the junta has called for a massive turnout.

About 4.8 million voters are eligible to take part, but observers said there could be a high abstention rate in the former French colony.

Many of the registered voters were still waiting for their voting cards on Sunday.

Ivory Coast has a population of about 19 million, but some 40% are immigrants - mostly plantation workers from neighbouring states, who cannot vote.

A leading Islamic group criticised the draft constitution as socially divisive and urged Muslims to vote with their consciences.

Those voting 'no' may include the large number of people of mixed parentage - and possibly Muslims from the north of the country. But some of those voting 'yes' are likely to do so out of a sense of nationalism.

Tight security

Polling stations opened at 0800 GMT and were due to remain open for 10 hours. First results are expected before the end of the day.

The military authorities said the security clamp-down was to ensure the vote ran smoothly.

In a televised statement, the Communications Minister, Henri Sama, accused opponents of plotting an "active" boycott of the poll.

The state of emergency is due to run until 1800 GMT on Tuesday, except in industrial and business areas, where it is expected to be partially lifted on Monday.

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See also:

05 Jul 00 | Africa
Deal to end Ivory Coast turmoil
05 Jul 00 | Africa
Why the world watches Abidjan
25 Dec 99 | Africa
Ivory Coast's new 'Le Boss'
24 Dec 99 | Media reports
Coup leader pledges democracy
08 Jan 00 | From Our Own Correspondent
Ivory Coast's unexpected coup
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