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Haitian election wins qualified okay

A day after Haiti held its first relatively peaceful election in years, accusations flew over reports of stolen ballot boxes and counting irregularities, although international observers were generally pleased.

"We are receiving some reports of problems with the count and we're looking into those," said Mary Durran, spokeswoman for the 210-member Organization of American States observer team. "It's too early to tell how serious the problems are and what effect they may have on the outcome. But on the whole, we think the vote went very well."

The Sunday election was seen as crucial for poverty-stricken Haiti, which hasn't had a functioning Parliament since President Rene Preval dissolved the body in January 1999.

Early Monday, thousands of paper ballots and cardboard ballot boxes were found strewn in the streets near a downtown election bureau office where the materials were stored overnight, prompting accusations of fraud.

Durran said the ballots had already been counted, and observers were investigating whether the count sheets that recorded the totals had been turned in separately. "It doesn't mean the vote will have to be canceled," she said.

Observers also were checking reports that armed men had stolen ballot boxes at some rural polling places.

Opposition leaders quickly charged that the reports were evidence that their opponents had tried to manipulate the election results. They called for a special commission to investigate the problems.

"This is a disaster," said Claude Mroumain, head of the Generation 2004 Party and part of a five-party opposition coalition known as Common Ground. "This puts Haiti in a new crisis."

Opposition leaders have charged for months that supporters of former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide were scheming to manipulate the election. Aristide was not running, but his Lavalas Family Party was backing hundreds of candidates for seats in Parliament and local government. Aristide is expected to run for president this fall.

Sunday's vote was postponed three times in six months, and there were 15 political murders leading up to the election. Despite two killings Sunday, the vote seemed free of widespread violence.

Thousands streamed to the polls to choose candidates to fill some 7,500 posts including 19 Senate seats, the entire 83-seat Chamber of Deputies and 133 mayors. More than $500-million in international aid to Haiti has been held up by its lack of a Parliament.

Durran said it would be several days before observers could make a definitive statement about the election but stressed that even with the scattered reports of problems, it appeared the vast majority of polling places had finished the process without problems.

"There are more than 11,000 polling places in the country, which should give you an idea of the scale," she said. "Our impression at this moment is that any problems affected only a minority of stations."

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