ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast -- An Ivory Coast government official reported two deaths among other incidents of violence and voter intimidation in the volatile west of the country on state TV only hours after polls closed in a contentious presidential election on Sunday.
Interior Ministry official Auguste Zoguehi reported that one soldier and one citizen were killed in the town of Niboua and listed a dozen other minor incidents of clashes between supporters of sitting President Laurent Gbagbo and his opponent Alassane Ouattara as well as cases of interference in the electoral process.
The opposition also leveled accusations of voter intimidation, kidnapping and violence. In Sinfra, a town not far from Niboua, pitched battles between partisans led to six deaths, said local Ouattara campaign director Zoua Boti Bi. Three of their party officials were kidnapped by unidentified armed men, he said.
Despite multiple inquiries with both international and domestic authorities, none of the incidents could be independently confirmed by The Associated Press.
Initial election results, expected Sunday night, were canceled amid the confusion.
In spite of the violence, in the major cities, millions of people voted largely without incident in a long-overdue election, which was supposed to be the final step toward reuniting the country eight years after a civil war divided it in two.
Voters were asked to choose between Gbagbo, who has been in power since violent street protests swept him into power in 2000, and the man he accuses of being behind the rebellion that sought to topple him, Ouattara.
Gbagbo received 38 percent in a first round of voting in October, and Ouattara came second with 32 percent. Since then, third-place finisher Henri Konan Bedie, who won 25 percent, has thrown his support behind Ouattara.
The first round went well because everyone could vote for their candidate of choice, said sociologist Fahiraman Kone. In the runoff, ethnic tensions are coming to the fore because people have to pick sides, he said.
Much of Sunday's violence was reported in the center and west of the country, where the majority of third-place finisher Henri Konan Bedie's support came from in the first round of voting in October. Bedie endorsed Ouattara for the run-off, but both campaigns have vied for his voters, in many cases resorting to violence if they couldn't be convinced.
At least six people were killed in partisan clashes in the west of the country in the days leading up to the second round of voting.
On the road to the town of Bayota, outside of the western city of Gagnoa, young Baoule voters set up makeshift roadblocks of logs on Sunday. A Gbagbo supporter was stabbed to death here Thursday by a band of political rivals, yet no police or army were in the area on election day, reinforcing the perception that lawlessness reigns in the region.
Security forces have nevertheless been reinforced across the country, though they kept a low profile during the vote, keeping watch at major intersections and setting up checkpoints along major roads in the major cities. Officials warned that they would act harshly against agitators.
Participation seemed lower than the record turnout of the first round in October, but was still strong across the country, said local UN mission chief Y.J. Choi.
As polling stations closed and the vote counting began, both candidates remained confident of victory. In the central city of Gagnoa, Gbagbo supporters broke into cheers when the results of one poll, in which the president won the lion's share of the votes, were read aloud.
The day was not without problems. Some of Gbagbo's supporters built barricades in the western cities of Divo and Lakota, in an effort to prevent Ouattara voters from getting to the polls, said Cristian Preda, head of the European Union election observation mission.
He had to pull a team of observers out of Gagnoa following death threats, he said.
Earlier in the day in Gagnoa, Ouattara supporters blocked access to a downtown polling station, forcing police to intervene.
Despite these incidents, many voters refused to cede to pessimism, expressing instead their hopes for the future of the country.
"This is the first time we've had a real election here," said Arsene Gomon, 76, a retired postman after he cast his vote in the Blokosso neighborhood of Abidjan. An election that isn't decided in advance, between candidates with legitimate platforms, "shows us what a real democracy is like," he said.
While the election is a sign of national reconciliation after a short civil war in 2002 and the ensuing eight year stalemate, it also brings out the divisions that led to the war.
"I'm here to get rid of a rebellion that's gone on too long already," said student Vaffiriki Diomande at a polling station in the chic neighborhood of Cocody. "Tonight, when the results are in, it will be all over."
A nationwide curfew went into effect on the eve of the election, keeping many electoral officers from arriving on time, and forcing many polling stations to open late.
Ouattara supporters took issue with the curfew after their candidate suggested that it could be used to tamper with vote counting.
"How can you explain a curfew in Ivory Coast just as we are holding our first democratic elections?" asked Vaka Toure, an unemployed Ouattara supporter in Abidjan. "Even Liberia didn't need a curfew to hold its election."
While voting for the most part took place peacefully, recent violence, in which at least six people have died, has stoked fears the situation could degenerate if the results aren't accepted by both sides.
Rebels in the northern half of the country still haven't disarmed and militias in the west remain dangerous, according to a recent report by New York-based Human Rights Watch.
As sculptor Rene Pohomin shared a beer with friends in a bar across from a voting station in Abidjan, he reminisced about life before the war.
"Before, we lived in harmony," he said. "I used to travel across the country, and women from other ethnicities would invite me in and cook me dinner."
The civil war put an end to this hospitality, he said, pitting neighbors against each other and breaking up mixed marriages.
"After the election, there will be no more killings, no more trouble," he said. "Then, we'll have to learn to live side by side again -- like a real democracy."