Ultimatum

 

If these conditions were not fulfilled, the parties "shall consider not participating in the election," the opposition said in a statement.

  

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"Government troops battled armed men in northern Nigeria... as tension mounted over the presidential election"

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The statement was read at the end of a meeting in the presence Atiku Abubakar, the current vice-president, and General Muhamadu Buhari - two leading opposition candidates in the presidential election.

 

Earlier the election commission ruled that Abubakar could stand in the vote, reversing an earlier move to exclude him after the Supreme Court decided on Monday that the commission did not have the right to disqualify candidates.

  

Abubakar, excluded from the initial list of approved candidates following corruption allegations, is one of two opposition figures expected to pose a serious challenge to the ruling party's Umaru Yar'Adua in Saturday's poll.

 

The presidential vote, which will also determine the head of the  legislative assembly, is expected to usher in Nigeria's first civilian-to civilian handover since the country gained independence from Britain in 1960.

 

Dubious elections

  

But the regional elections, marked by the deaths of between 20 and 50 people, were slammed as fraudulent by the European Union, the United States and rights watchdogs such as Human Rights Watch and  Amnesty International.

  

"In Nigeria, the United States takes seriously reports of voting  irregularities and election-related violence during this past weekend's state and local elections," Dana Perino, US presidential spokeswoman, said.

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EU observers who monitored the state governorship elections also  expressed "serious concerns" about the vote.

  

The EU observer mission criticised the late opening of polling stations, under-age voting, failure to guarantee the secrecy of the ballot and a shortage of electoral officials.

  

There were "incidents of hijacking of ballot boxes by groups of thugs" as well as irregularities that led to significant discrepancies between results at polling stations and ballot collation at the local government level, they said.

 

Gun battle

 

Government troops battled armed men in northern Nigeria on Wednesday adding to the tension ahead of the presidential vote.

An army spokesman said at least 25 of the armed men were killed during the operation.

Gunfire broke out around sunrise on Wednesday near the area where a group of suspected Islamic hardliners were holed up. The same group reportedly attacked a police station a day earlier.

 

Residents said they believed the armed men were members of an outlawed, self-styled Islamic movement that has clashed with security forces in recent years.