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Liberian poll draws line under 14 bloody years

George Weah, a former Fifa world footballer of the year who rose to stardom from the slums of the capital Monrovia, has captured people's imaginations but the makeshift polling stations in his home city yesterday offered a stark reminder of the difficulties ahead for whoever wins.

Although voting did not begin until 8 am, one resident, Abbott Hunter, a street preacher aged 31, arrived just after midnight at a polling station inside an abandoned bank building in the centre of the capital, Monrovia, a city lacking electricity or water for more than a decade. "The Bible says I'm the head, not the tail. I wanted to be here first to vote for my future," he said. "We need better education, food, electricity. Our country could be so rich."

Exit polls have yet to reach Liberia, a country founded by freed slaves from America in 1847, but the first partial results are expected as soon as today, with election monitors appealing for patience and calm.

Mr Weah's homecoming campaign has swayed much of Liberia's youth - including many among the 100,000 demobilised fighters who raped, pillaged and murdered during the civil war. But his critics say he has neither the education nor the management experience to govern Liberia's 3 million people.

His main rival could hardly pose a sharper contrast. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf comes from the ranks of World Bank economists rather than world football. Hours before voting centres opened, watched by blue-bereted United Nations peacekeepers, people had gathered outside. Some slept the night there, while in up-country rural areas, others faced long walks over mud-clogged roads to vote.

"We will get a leader who will help us to go to school and who will give our parents work," said Willie Moore, 19, who voted at a church in Monrovia.

Mr Weah, 39 - who played during his football career for AC Milan, AS Monaco, Paris St Germain and Chelsea - and Ms Johnson-Sirleaf both campaigned on promises to rebuild Liberia's shattered infrastructure and restore basic services such as running water and mains electricity to the country. "This is a good day, this is the day people are exercising their democratic right ... they are doing it for the first time without fear," said Mr Weah, before voting. His well-funded campaign drew huge crowds.

If Ms Johnson-Sirleaf, 66, wins she will become Africa's first elected female president."I'm happy for the Liberian people. They are tired of destruction. They are standing up for themselves today," she said, voting in Tubmanburg, north of Monrovia.