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Zanzibar’s elections turn violent

ZANZIBAR, Tanzania – Crucial regional elections turned violent Sunday as police and the ruling party’s militia engaged in running clashes with opposition supporters in the streets of the main town in semiautonomous Zanzibar.

Police fired tear gas and water cannons while party militiamen beat back people protesting election irregularities on the edges of the old city, known as Stone Town. More than a dozen people were injured, hospital officials said.

Voters turned out in heavy numbers to choose between the socialists who have ruled the Indian Ocean archipelago for nearly 40 years and an opposition group promising wholesale economic reforms.

No official results had been released by early today, but Zanzibar’s opposition leader Seif Shariff Hamad declared that his party held an early lead.

He said that judging by results phoned in by opposition observers at 20 polling stations, about 61 percent of voters had chosen him to be the next president.

“We are winning these elections despite having a lot of irregularities,” Hamad said. “We are confident this trend will continue.”

President Amani Karume from the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi party predicted that his party would win the majority of ballots from Zanzibar’s 507,000 voters.

“We believe we have the numbers,” Karume said Sunday. “We don’t expect to lose.”

The election, which took place after a fiercely contested campaign marred by violence, is seen as a test of Western-style democracy in this devoutly Muslim part of East Africa.

Many consider Sunday’s elections key to the future of democracy in Zanzibar. Two previous elections, in 1995 and 2000, were marred by violence and fraud. Radicals could cite a third flawed election as proof that an Islamic government is the only answer to the island’s problems.

The violence Sunday began with police and ruling party attempts to truck in hundreds of people to vote in polling stations. Voting for councilors, legislators and a president is based on residency.

Some, but not all, of the disputed voters were listed on the voter register, which has been a point of contention since the elections were scheduled. When asked where they were coming from, the disputed voters covered their faces and refused to answer.

Riot police fired live ammunition into the air and tear gas down Stone Town’s narrow alleys to chase away neighborhood men who threatened to stop the voting.

Associated Press reporters visited over a dozen polling stations, and opposition party agents complained about administrative problems in addition to the contested voter register. Ruling party agents did not report any problems.

Journalists also observed uniformed members of the ruling party’s Green Guard severely beat at least one man suspected of being an opposition supporter.

Fatma Abdulhabib Ferej, an opposition candidate, said the electoral commission illegally added 2,000 names to the voter register in her district.

Truckloads of men believed to be militia in plainclothes were driven around opposition areas. An AP reporter saw these militias communicating with ruling party officials and military intelligence agents.