| BRAZZAVILLE, March 20
BRAZZAVILLE, March 20 Voting in a presidential
election in Congo Republic opened on Sunday under a
government-imposed communications blackout as long-time leader
Denis Sassou Nguesso sought to extend his rule over the Central
African oil producer.
Sassou Nguesso is heavily favoured to win the polls. He
faces eight opponents, including retired General Jean-Marie
Mokoko who is seen as the strongest challenger.
The government also banned the use of motor vehicles
nationwide during the vote, and police checkpoints were erected
across the capital Brazzaville to verify that those circulating
had obtained special permission.
Voters queued outside a polling station in Brazzaville's
Mafouta neighbourhood ahead of the scheduled 7 AM (0600 GMT)
start time for the election but faced more than two hours of
"I want this to go well. I don't want war, which is often
what happens after these elections," said Damien Kiongazi, who
returned home from Paris to vote in the poll.
Having ruled from 1979 to 1992, when he lost an election,
Sassou Nguesso regained power in 1997 after a brief civil war
and then went on to win disputed elections in 2002 and 2009.
He pushed through constitutional changes in October to
remove term and age limits that would have prevented him from
His supporters credit him with restoring stability and
developing the country's infrastructure. Critics, however, say
Congo's oil wealth has enriched a small elite. Around half of
the population of 4.5 million lives in poverty.
The polls will be watched closely by other leaders in Africa
- notably in neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo - where a
number of long-serving presidents are seeking to stay on beyond
constitutionally mandated term limits.
A government official said on Saturday that mobile phone
companies MTN Congo and Airtel Congo had been
ordered to interrupt service on March 20 and 21 "for reasons of
security and public tranquillity".
The opposition criticised the decision, which they said
would hamper the work of elections monitors.
The opposition said on Friday it had documented preparations
for widespread vote rigging, including voters registered at
multiple polling sites, individuals with multiple voter cards
and the distribution of voter cards to non-citizens.
The government rejected the accusations, claiming its
opponents were preparing the ground for post-election chaos. The
opposition in turn denied it was inciting violence but warned
that people would not accept a tainted result.
At the polling station in Mafouta, in southern Brazzaville's
opposition stronghold, some of those waiting to cast their
ballots on Sunday morning complained that the posted voter list
contained the names of people who had died years before.
A Reuters reporter saw three names repeated twice, listing
the same birthdays and parents.
"I'm not confident. I see already that our voices are being
stolen. The real results will not be given," said voter Boclelon
Ganga, 28, as he smoked a cigarette waiting for voting to begin.
Former colonial power France criticised the conditions of
October's constitutional referendum, saying they did not allow
an accurate assessment of the result. And the European Union has
decided not to send a mission to observe Sunday's vote.
(Writing by Joe Bavier; Editing by Hugh Lawson)