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Haitians seek end to army's role

Working in his tailor shop decorated with pictures of Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, 67-year-old Lifranc Jean said he would be up at dawn today to vote in his country's first free elections in five years.

"The biggest thing that Aristide can do is destroy the army _ that's all he has to do," said Jean, one of the millions of pro-Aristide Haitians who rejoiced last year when the deposed leader returned from exile in the United States.

Jean said his most important priority in the parliamentary and local elections would be choosing lawmakers to permanently abolish the army, which helped overthrow Aristide in a 1991 coup.

"The army of Haiti has always gone out and broken bones, which has made us nothing," Jean said, echoing the view of many Haitians victimized by years of military and paramilitary terror in this impoverished Caribbean nation.

Aristide dissolved the army after his restoration in October, but it has not been formally abolished.

Official foreign observers say they expect a free and fair election, despite reports of a firebomb attack on a provincial electoral office Friday. U.N. spokesman Kees Nieuwendijk said some ballots were burned and election materials lost when an incendiary device was thrown into the office in Limbe, near Haiti's north coast.

Despite a low-key campaign that ended with a flurry of rallies and other events Friday, foreign observers expect a strong turnout at the polls as Haitians try to cement the country's transformation to democratic rule.

"Our future is at stake. We're taking things into our own hands," said Pierre LeFrance, a 20-year-old unemployed schoolteacher from the rural town of Leogane, about 20 miles outside Port-au-Prince.

In Haiti, three out of four workers are jobless. Only one in four Haitians can read or write.

Foreign election observers say it is difficult to estimate the turnout, but voter registration of some 80 to 90 percent, 28 political parties and the more than 10,000 candidates running for municipal, state and parliamentary seats are an indication of strong participation.

Observers sent by Republicans and Democrats in Washington offered strikingly different forecasts about the prospects for a fair election.

"I am confident we will have a good election," said Brian Atwood, head of a delegation of observers sent by President Clinton. "It will not be a perfect election, but I have not been in a country that has had perfect election."

The International Republican Institute was gloomier.

"The pre-electoral process and environment in Haiti has seriously challenged the most minimally accepted standards for the holding of a credible election," an institute report said.

The institute, a U.S. taxpayer- funded group aimed at supporting Republican Party principles abroad, said voters were uninformed and preparations were dominated by Aristide's government.

The polls will be open from 6 a.m. until 6 p.m. today. Results are expected to be announced in about a week. Three pro-Aristide parties are expected to dominate.