Protests Rage as Togo Vote Counting Starts

Security forces fired tear gas and stun grenades at crowds of angry opposition supporters in Togo (search) on Monday, as vote counting got under way a day after a tense presidential vote in the West African nation.

In a bid to avert mounting violence, ruling party candidate Faure Gnassingbe (search) and exiled opposition leader Gilchrist Olympio (search) flew to Nigeria for emergency talks in Abuja with Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo (search) and Mohammed Ibn Chambas, executive secretary of the 15-nation Economic Community of West African States (search).

The main opposition candidate, Bob Akitani (search), refused to attend the meeting, staying behind in Togo where he was in hiding, fearing for his safety, his spokesman Homawoo Atsu said. The other opposition candidate, Harry Olympio (search), planned to go to Abuja, but had not arrived there yet, his brother Alberto said.

Akitani heads the party of Gilchrist Olympio, the son of Togo's first democratically elected leader, who was assassinated in a 1963 coup led by longtime ruler Gnassingbe Eyadema (search), whose Feb. 5 death threw the tiny country into turmoil. Eyadema changed the constitution to bar Gilchrist Olympio from running for president. Harry and Gilchrist are cousins.

In Lome, electoral commission chairman Kissem Tchagai Walla said on state television that partial results would be released Tuesday evening, 48 hours after polls closed. Private radio and television stations have not released any results following a media ban on April 19.

Late Sunday, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan (search) appealed "once again for calm" as results were counted, his spokesman said.

Gnassingbe — son of the late dictator Gnassingbe Eyadema, who ruled Togo for 38 years — reiterated after the poll his vows to restore security, unite the divided country and install a government of national unity if elected.

His rivals in Sunday's election were Harry Olympio and opposition front-runner Akitani, who went into hiding after unidentified men stormed his office, tied up three staff members at gunpoint and stole computers, according to his spokesman and lawyer, Homawoo Atsu.

After Eyadema died Feb. 5 of a heart attack, the army named Gnassingbe president in what many saw as a military coup. International pressure forced Gnassingbe to step down and promise elections amid opposition protests that descended into deadly violence. More violence shadowed the campaign and there were fears it could erupt again, whatever the outcome of the vote.

The succession chaos hit the impoverished country of 5 million, battered and divided after Eyadema's oppressive rule.

Officials said voter turnout appeared higher than in past elections.

On Monday, mobs of angry young men, armed with machetes, knives and clubs, set tires ablaze and erected cinderblock barricades in Lome's western neighborhood of Be Kopta. Police dispersed the crowds with tear gas and stun grenades. There was no word on casualties from the violence, if any.

On Sunday, protesters in Be, another part of town that is Lome's main opposition neighborhood, set a car ablaze after claiming the owner possessed a stolen ballot box. Opposition supporters claimed their names were excluded from some voter lists and accused government loyalists of stuffing the station's ballot box with votes for Gnassingbe.

Opposition coalition spokesman Yawovi Agboyibo said masked men had also stormed several polling stations outside Lome, firing in the air and carting away ballot boxes. Government officials could not immediately be reached to comment.

Gnassingbe's spokesman Pascal Bodjona denied Faure's political party was behind the theft of ballot boxes or harassment at polls. "Our party condemns all violence," he said. "These accusations are an opposition plot for support."

Bodjona said opposition members attacked and severely beat Gnassingbe's campaign manager, Richard Attipoe, as he voted at a polling station outside Lome.

A Western diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said he saw the bodies of three young men who had been shot in a neighborhood near the airport. It was not known who killed them or why.

In Berlin, the German government said Togo's former Interior Minister Francois Boko had sought refuge at its embassy in Lome. Boko was fired Friday after calling for the ballot to be canceled to avert bloodshed.

After nearly four decades of Eyadema's mismanagement and neglect, the average Togolese income is $270 a year, down from $600 in the 1980s. Unemployment affects nearly every household.

Gnassingbe campaigned on a message of unity and change, hoping to escape the negative image of his father. Yet many believe he's merely a cog in Eyadema's military-backed political machine.

"I am committed to forming a government open to all members of Togo's political parties," Gnassingbe told reporters Sunday. "I think right now we badly need peace and security to be established in our country. More justice, more freedom, that's what I'll do. Togo is on the path of democracy."