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Vote counting in Benin after election marked by violent protests

Benin votes for president after week of violent protests in Cotonou

COTONOU (Reuters) -Vote counting began in Benin on Sunday in a presidential poll that was boycotted by some opposition parties over violence triggered by objections to President Patrice Talon’s quest for a second five-year mandate.

Talon, a multi-millionaire cotton magnate who touts strong economic growth under his leadership, is accused by his opponents of undermining Benin’s standing as one of West Africa’s most stable democracies.

Voter turnout was low compared to previous elections, and there were widespread problems in identifying or registering voters, a group of civil society organisations monitoring the election said in a statement.

They did not provide comparative figures.

“Incidents such as ballot box stuffing, sequestration of observers and intimidation of voters were recorded almost everywhere,” said the Electoral Platform of Civil Society Organisations of Benin.

Protests in several cities this week turned violent. Some people were killed in gunfire on Thursday in the central town of Bante when security forces fired warning shots, its mayor told local radio, without saying how many died.

After casting his vote at a primary school in the commercial capital Cotonou, Talon said Benin was “writing another page in its history despite the intimidation”.

“There are people who have mobilised fighters to attack the republic. Police officers have been attacked with weapons of war. It is regrettable,” he said.

Reuters was not immediately able to confirm where or when such violence occurred.

Among the protesters’ complaints are Talon’s U-turn on a pledge he made as a candidate in 2016 to serve only one term, and changes he pushed through to election laws, which resulted in total control of parliament by Talon’s supporters and the exclusion of leading opponents from the presidential race.

A coalition of opposition parties in a statement late on Saturday called on their supporters to boycott the poll, and voters largely stayed away from at least five polling stations in opposition-supporting areas of Cotonou.

“I think it is an election whose results are known in advance. My vote will not change anything,” said Nadine Abibou, a 27-year-old shopkeeper.

Others were undeterred by the boycott call.

“I came to vote this morning to choose the president. I hope that the Beninese will come out massively to do the same as I did,” said Diane Fanou, a 30-year-old hairdresser, in the Zogbo neighbourhood.

U.S. democracy watchdog Freedom House downgraded Benin last year in its annual rankings from “free” to “partly free”.

Talon faces two relatively little-known opposition candidates. Several prominent opposition leaders have been detained this year on terrorism-related charges, Amnesty International said. Talon has denied his government is targeting his opponents.

Benin, a country of about 12 million people, became Africa’s top cotton exporter in 2018.

Provisional results of the first round of the election are expected by April 13.

(Reporting by Allegresse SasseWriting by Aaron Ross and Hereward HollandEditing by Jane Merriman and David Evans)

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