Polls open for first time in East Timor

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Presidential elections have begun in East Timor in the first voting since independence was achieved in 2002.

Eight candidates are hoping to replace Xanana Gusmao, who is stepping down after five years in the job.

Prime Minister Jose Ramos-Horta is one of the runners and is seen as a populist favourite.

The Nobel peace prize winner was one of the founding members of the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor (Fretilin) which led the independence movement against the country's occupier and brutal repressor Indonesia in 1999.

However the elections are not expected to be a one-horse race with tough competition from Fretilin's candidate, Francisco Guterres, and the Democratic party's Fernando de Araujo, also known as Lasama.

Although official election results are not expected until April 16th it is thought that preliminary results could begin to be published as early as Tuesday.

Under the young country's electoral system, if no one wins 50 per cent or more of the public's vote a run-off vote will be held next month, a likely situation according to many international spectators.

One of the world's poorest nations, the former Portuguese colony of East Timor, now Timor-Leste, gained independence in 2002 after Indonesia's invasion in 1975.

Although the East Timorese people voted for independence in 1999's referendum, anti-independence militia responded with outbreaks of violence until the UN intervened.

Violence on the streets emerged again last March when fighting in the capital Dili killed 30 people and caused 100,000 to flee their homes. Troops from Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand, and Portugal were sent to the nation in order to restore peace although many fear the fragile harmony could be shattered by the upcoming elections.

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