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Voting begins in Niger amid fraud worries

Voters in Niger began casting their ballots on Monday in an election meant to hand power back to civilians in the West African uranium producer, but which could prove contentious due to fears of fraud.

The election commission said over the weekend it had been informed fake voter ID cards were sold prior to the poll -- without saying how many -- while eight of the election's ten candidates had called for delays to the vote to allow time for better preparations.

The military junta has refused to alter the schedule, however, after having promised to leave power by April, giving time for a likely second round in March.

"It gives me a feeling of real satisfaction and hope," said junta leader General Salou Djibo on Monday after casting his ballot in the capital under heavy security. "Hope because it is a new beginning for Niger, a departure that will allow new leaders to focus on development."

Niger is among the world's poorest countries and is facing a growing threat from al Qaeda-linked militants operating in its northern desert region, but its minerals riches have drawn billions of dollars in planned investments.

The junta took control of the country in February 2010 after toppling then-president Mamadou Tandja, who had attempted to extend his time in power by altering the constitution, and has said it is committed to stepping down by April.

Among the candidates seeking the presidency are veteran opposition leader Mahamadou Issoufou, and two former premiers -- Seini Oumarou of Tandja's MNSD party and Hama Amadou. Parliamentary elections are being held simultaneously.

The rival candidates had requested a delay to the elections after confusion and disorganisation during local and municipal elections earlier this month, and had sought to have the electoral commission replaced.

Six candidates including Oumarou announced a coalition seen bolstering the MNSD's chances and which was immediately attacked by rivals as a step back to the Tandja era.
West African regional bloc ECOWAS has sent hundreds of observers. The European Union has also sent observers, though they have not been deployed in the north of the country after a slew of kidnappings by al Qaeda's north African wing.

French nuclear firm Areva is the country's biggest uranium player, though Chinese, Canadian and Australian firms are also planning minerals investments.

31 January 2011   


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