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Observer team halts work on Peru election

Throwing Peru's troubled presidential election into even deeper turmoil, the Organization of American States on Monday suspended its election monitoring here because of concerns about fraud and a faulty computerized vote-counting system.

The OAS announced its decision the same day that Alejandro Toledo, the U.S.-trained business school professor who has mounted a heated challenge to President Alberto Fujimori, submitted a letter to elections officials formally withdrawing from Sunday's runoff vote. The move prompted one high-ranking Peruvian elections official to declare that Toledo had "forfeited" the race and handed victory to Fujimori.

In a statement issued by the organization's office in Lima, the OAS said it decided to end the work of its 20 observers in Peru "because of a lack of consistency and precision observed" in the National Office of Elections Processes, the country's main voting agency.

Eduardo Stein, the former Guatemalan foreign minister who heads the observation team in Peru, said the organization "is not leaving the country, only asking our workers to temporarily abstain from their work."

"We have been consistently documenting problems in the general management of the electoral procedures that could compromise the legitimacy of the vote on the day that has been designated," Stein said, adding that a more detailed report of their concerns would be released today.

Since the first round of elections April 9, the OAS and other observer groups, most of them from the United States, have complained of voting irregularities attributed to Fujimori's government.

Last week, the OAS, which was invited by Fujimori to oversee the elections, publicly asked the national voting agency to postpone the runoff vote, scheduled for Sunday, to correct technical problems in the agency's computer system. On Thursday, Toledo announced his withdrawal from Sunday's vote, calling for a later election date and for supporters to withhold their vote as an act of protest.

The events of the past week have thrown the country's elections into a dizzying tailspin, causing widespread confusion among voters, uncertainty among investors, anger at the observers and concerns among officials from the United States and other countries about Peru's democratic process.

In Washington, the State Department said it supported the OAS decision and called for Peruvian officials to take measures to ensure a fair vote.

Toledo campaign officials delivered a letter to the National Office of Elections Processes Monday afternoon detailing the challenger's decision to pull out of the race unless the date is changed to mid-June and guarantees are made for fair elections.

Carlos Bringas, a juror for the elections office, said Toledo's letter was equivalent to a "forfeit" and that by default Fujimori should be declared the winner.

Observers and Peruvian election officials are at odds over a vote-counting computer system, which was tested Sunday in front of observers and journalists.

Peruvian officials declared the test a success. The OAS, however, said serious problems still existed _ mostly that the software being used could not properly transmit simulated data to the central offices from outside computers and therefore could not adequately count the votes.

Fujimori has refused to change Sunday's vote and did not offer immediate comment on Monday's developments.