Guatemalan voters reject dictator's bid for power

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Guatemala's ruthless former dictator has lost his bid to regain power through the ballot box. Early results yesterday showed huge numbers of voters had turned out to block his election as president.

Efrain Rios Montt is blamed for the slaughter of thousands of civilians at the height of the Central American nation's civil war in the 1980s, and people rushed to vote in such numbers that at one polling station on Sunday two women were crushed to death.

The results showed General Rios Montt, the Republican Front candidate, trailing in third place with 11 per cent behind the business candidate, Oscar Berger, who had 48 per cent, and the centre-left candidate, Alvaro Colom, on 26 per cent.

Electoral authorities kept polling stations open late into the night as up to 80 per cent of the electorate of five million packed into schools and town halls to vote in the country's second general election since a 1996 peace accord ended a 36-year civil war in which up to 200,000 people died.

Mr Berger, who now faces a run-off vote against Mr Colom on 28 December, hailed the vote as the "start of a defeat for corruption, dishonesty and shamelessness", after an electoral process scarred by tension and violence.

A manager for Mr Colom's National Hope and Unity party was shot and injured early on Sunday by three armed men as he returned to his Guatemala City home, in a final act of violence in a campaign in which human rights groups said 29 opposition candidates had been shot.

Shortly before polls opened on Sunday, two Mayan women were trampled to death and three others seriously injured in the central highland department of Quiche, as about 3,000 people surged to vote at a polling centre in San Juan Chajul. Election observers from the Organisation of American States called the incident "regretful", adding that the "affluence of voters in polling centres [nationwide] overwhelmed logistical procedures".

Trouble was also reported at voting stations in the rural San Marcos and Suchitepequez departments as mobs stormed electoral centres and burnt ballot boxes.

Trouble first flared in July when supporters of General Rios Montt, linked to a former paramilitary group, burnt tyres and laid siege to public offices in the capital, Guatemala City, to protest against a constitutional amendment preventing the former dictator from standing for president. The ban was later overturned by a sympathetic high court.

Late last month ex-civil defence patrol members kidnapped a group of journalists and a government driver at a roadblock near the Mexican border, and threatened to shoot or burn them alive.

The Nobel peace prize winner Rigoberta Menchu, a Mayan Indian activist said: "This first round was about saying no to violence. The most important thing now is to see what programmes of government [the two-run off candidates] are offering."

It remained unclear yesterday whether General Rios Montt would accept defeat.

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