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Blasts as Burundi goes to polls

United Nations

BUJUMBURA, Burundi (Reuters) -- The sound of explosions and gunfire boomed over Burundi's capital Friday in what the United Nations said was an attempt to disrupt the war-shattered country's first multiparty polls in 12 years.

The United Nations also warned that fraudulent voting was being reported and that attacks had occurred in five voting districts.

Army spokesman Adolphe Manirakiza said a mortar bomb attack near a polling station in a Bujumbura suburb killed one person and badly wounded three while an unexplained outbreak of shooting had disrupted voting in northwest Bubanza province.

Unidentified gunmen hiding in a nearby forest had also shot in the direction of the international airport west of the city, he said. The airport remains open, officials say.

The violence erupted as voters around the tiny coffee-growing country went to the polls to choose councils for 129 communes, or administrative districts, in a prelude to parliamentary and presidential elections expected in August.

The polls, expected to indicate the likely outcome of the August elections, are the latest stage of a U.N.-backed plan to end an ethnic civil war that has killed an estimated 300,000 people since 1993.

Carolyn McAskie, U.N. Special Representative in Burundi, told reporters that nearly half the 3 million expected voters had gone to the polls by midday in spite of the attacks.

McAskie said the United Nations and Burundi were investigating the attacks and said polls could be kept open as long as needed to ensure full participation.

"I would like to say those who are trying to disturb the vote must not win. The people of Burundi must win," she said.

She warned political parties that she did not name against rigging the vote.

"With people trying to vote fraudulently, my message to those who are doing it is that we know who you are," McAskie said.

Rebels suspected

Manirakiza said the army suspected the rebel Hutu Forces for National Liberation (FNL) in all of Friday's attacks.

"Some leaflets have been distributed telling people that if they vote they will have problems," Manirakiza said.

The FNL was not immediately available for comment.

The militant FNL is the last group fighting in Burundi, scene of more than a decade of war pitting majority Hutus against the politically dominant Tutsi minority.

FNL leader Agathon Rwasa and Burundian President Domitien Ndayizeye signed a cessation of hostilities agreement on May 15.

But there has been increased fighting in recent days between the army and the FNL, which had said it would not disrupt the polls unless provoked.

The FNL respected a deal not to interrupt a peaceful Feb. 28 referendum that approved a new constitution, intended to settle ethnic divisions responsible for a number of massacres since independence from Belgium in 1962.

About 3,000 national observers, assisted by 350 officials from the peacekeeping U.N. Operation in Burundi, are monitoring voting in 6,300 stations across the country. Polls opened at 6 a.m. (0400 GMT) local and were scheduled to close at 6 p.m. (1600 GMT).

The polls are the first multiparty elections since June 1993, when Hutu Melchior Ndadaye won elections ending military rule. Tutsi soldiers assassinated Ndadaye four months later, triggering the country's descent into war.

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