Millions of Congolese voted in the country's first multiparty election in four decades Sunday, the culmination of years of postwar transition that many pray will herald stability for the tumultuous central Africa region that Congo anchors.
But with militia fighters still raping and looting in the lawless east, former rebel leaders on the ballot and a leading politician boycotting the vote, persuading all parties to accept the results may be the toughest task of all.
Voters, including many casting ballots for the first time in their lives, feared wars that set central Africa ablaze could flare anew if Congo's democratic experiment fails.
Vote counting began after polls closed Sunday evening, but final results were not expected for weeks. Results will be hand tabulated and transported to Kinshasa by plane, truck and boat.
"Some say Africa is shaped like a pistol and Congo is the trigger," said Jean Kaseke, a 38-year old pastor heading up a line that formed before dawn at a polling station in the capital, Kinshasa. "If Congo can succeed, all of Africa can do it."
Congo's path to Sunday's watershed moment - the first multiparty elections for president since independence from Belgium in 1960 - has been one of turmoil and deep privation for Congo's 58 million people.
Some 25 million registered voters were also selecting a 500-member legislature to replace a national-unity administration arranged under peace accords that officially ended a 1998-2002 war.
President Joseph Kabila, now 35, became one of the world's youngest leaders in 2001 when he inherited power after the assassination of his father, Laurent Kabila, who ousted the corrupt, 32-year dictator Mobutu Sese Seko four years earlier in a Rwandan-backed rebel advance across the country.
More than six nearby nations were drawn into the war. Aid groups estimate 4 million died, mostly from hunger and disease, in a conflict that still kills 1,000 daily.
Among the top issues in a campaign that saw at least 33 die in political violence were ending corruption and bringing economic development to Congo, whose people remain poor despite the country's wealth of diamonds, ores and minerals.
Kabila is considered among the front-runners listed on a seven-page ballot, which has 33 candidates for president and more than 9,000 aspiring lawmakers.
The winner's administration will replace the transitional government, which includes four vice presidents, among them another top presidential contender, former rebel leader Jean-Pierre Bemba.
Surrounded by a dozen bodyguards and wearing a blue pin-stripped suit, Kabila cast his ballot at a ramshackle colonial-era school with broken windows.
"We're looking forward to a future of peace," Kabila told a mob of shouting reporters. "We want to consolidate peace and stability in the country."
Bemba said he was "very confident and satisfied" with the poll so far. "I'm waiting for the people of Congo to turn the page."
Veteran politician Etienne Tshisekedi boycotted the vote. Electoral officials and observers outnumbered voters at many polling stations in his central Congo stronghold of Mbuji-Mayi. Crowds of youths hovered around some deserted polling booths as riot police patrolled the tense city.
U.N. spokesman Jean-Tobias Okala said 11 voting stations were burned down by people opposed to the vote in Tshisekedi strongholds. The U.N.-supported balloting cost nearly half a billion dollars.
Elsewhere, voters stood behind collapsible cardboard shades to weed through ballots showing names, party affiliations and faces of candidates - a helping hand to Congolese who never learned to read in a country with some of the world's lowest levels of education and health care.
Some 2,000 international monitors were on hand. Members of the United Nations' 17,600-member peacekeeping force, the world body's largest, cruised streets in armored personnel carriers sporting .50 caliber machine guns. Congo riot police eyed gatherings of young men. No serious violence was reported outside of the 11 burned polling stations.
"Today is a chance to make a new beginning and to draw the line at all the war we have seen," 44-year-old engineer Jean-Pierre Shamba said after casting his ballot at a secondary school in the eastern town of Bunia, where blue-helmeted Moroccan troops guarded polling stations and U.N. tanks and armored cars patrolled the streets.
Final results of the presidential poll may not be known for weeks as results are hand tabulated and transported to Kinshasa by plane, truck and boat. Congo is the size of Western Europe, with few paved roads.
If no presidential candidate wins a majority of votes Sunday, a runoff will be held between the top two finishers, likely in September.
Congolese and Western diplomats say the period after results are known but before any inauguration may be one of the most dangerous in Congo in years.
If losing candidates refuse to accept the results, ex-warlords or would-be rebel leaders may begin fighting again. That could undermine stability across the region. Congo is bordered by nine countries.
"Everyone must accept the results," said 53-year-old chauffeur Nestor Bueza. "We don't want any more wars. We've suffered enough."
Associated Press reporters Michelle Faul in Mbuji-Mayi and Anjan Sundaram in Bunia contributed to this report.
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