Election is seen as a litmus test for Cote d'Ivoire following the 2002-3 war that split the country [EPA]

Vote-counting has begun in Cote d'Ivoire following a presidential election clouded by accusations of vote rigging and intimidation, despite widespread hopes it would help end a decade of political and economic crisis.

Polling stations in the country closed at 1700 GMT on Sunday.

Laurent Gbagbo, the incumbent president, is squaring off against Alassane Ouattara, a former prime minister and senior IMF official, in Sunday's tight race that had triggered violence and rekindled simmering tensions in the world's top cocoa grower, divided by a 2002-2003 civil war.

The poll aims to reunite Ivory Coast after its northern half was seized by rebels, but the electoral
battle lines during the campaigns looked ominously similar to the ethnic and territorial ones of the 2002 conflict.

Gbagbo won 38 per cent of the vote in the first round and Ouattara trailed with 32 per cent. However, Ouattara has secured the support of Hennri Konan Bedie, the third place candidate who got 25 per cent of the vote in the last poll.

'Irregularities'

Marcel Tanon, Ouattara's campaign manager, told journalists that party representatives were prevented from going to polling stations and sometimes chased away.

He said roadblocks had been set up by pro-Gbagbo youths who checked voting cards of those who might vote for the opposition.

"(We) want to draw attention to the risk that this overshadows the credibility of the vote," Tanon said.

Gbagbo also complained about irregularities taking place in the central and northern parts of the country.

The Reuters news agency reported that a house had been burnt down in what appeared to be a reprisal attack against a Gbagbo supporter on election day in the village of Kononsla, a village around 300km from the capital.

"According to the information I received, it seems the victim was a supporter of FPI, so his brothers weren't very happy with him and they came to mess up his house," a local official said.

Night time curfew

The government has imposed a night-time curfew from Saturday through to the end of Wednesday, citing scuffles between youths wielding sticks, machetes and guns in and around Abidjan.

Many fear large-scale violence if the result is disputed as supporters on both sides have a history of taking to the streets.

"The stakes are very high. The first round was very good. [But] we have seen some radicalisation," Gilles Yabi, an independent political analyst, said.

"I'm afraid we can expect some degree of violence."

Source: Agencies