I. Coast votes for new president in key stability test

Abidjan (AFP) - Ivory Coast voted Sunday in a presidential election seen as a key test of stability after years of violence and upheaval in the west African country.

The world's top cocoa producer needs a peaceful and credible election to help recover its former status as a beacon of progress and prosperity in the region.

"It's a big day for Ivory Coast," said incumbent President Alassane Ouattara, who is tipped to win re-election over six challengers, as he cast his ballot in the economic capital Abidjan.

"We must endeavour to conduct these elections in peace and serenity, and come together more in order to face the other challenges awaiting the Ivorian nation," he said.

More than six million people were eligible to cast ballots five years after an election that unleashed weeks of armed conflict claiming some 3,000 lives.

The crisis, which pitted Ouattara against former strongman Laurent Gbagbo, was a bloody epilogue to a decade of upheaval that split the country between a rebel-held north and a loyalist south.

Some 34,000 soldiers including 6,000 UN peacekeepers were on patrol during Sunday's polling.

Turnout in Abidjan's central Plateau district had reached around 45 percent by midday, compared with an 80 percent participation rate overall in 2010.

However Karim Konate, a voter in the central city of Bouake, said at a polling station that opened five hours late: "This looks like sabotage. Some voters even left (without casting ballots)."

Voting was extended by two hours beyond the official 5:00 pm (1700 GMT) close at polling stations that opened late.

- 'Knock-out blow' -

A prominent economist and former deputy head of the International Monetary Fund, Ouattara hopes for a solid first-round win -- the "knock-out blow" he promised on the stump -- that will allow him to avoid a run-off against a sole opponent.

Ouattara, 73, has campaigned on turning around Ivory Coast's economy and assuring stability after years of turmoil in the former French colony of 23 million.

Weeks of violence followed the 2010 election, when then president Gbagbo refused to concede defeat to Ouattara, the declared winner.

Ouattara was finally inaugurated president in 2011, and Gbagbo was eventually ousted by French-backed, pro-Ouattara forces.

Gbagbo is now in a Dutch jail awaiting trial next month for crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court in The Hague -- while rights campaigners have said little justice has been meted out to members of Ouattara's camp over the 2010-11 violence.

- Vote-rigging claims -

Opposition figures have already cried foul this time around, with three candidates having withdrawn from the race, leaving Ouattara vying against six others.

Ouattara's main challenger is former prime minister Pascal Affi N'Guessan, who is running on behalf of Gbagbo's party, the Ivorian Popular Front.

Former prime minister Charles Konan Banny dropped out of the running on Friday citing "serious irregularities" in the organisation of the vote.

Former foreign minister Amara Essy had withdrawn earlier, along with former national assembly speaker Mamadou Koulibaly, who condemned the vote as "rigged".

The government shrugged off their boycott as a bid to duck out of a contest they were tipped to lose.

But Ouattara has come under criticism from Amnesty International for the "arbitrary arrests" of opponents ahead of the vote, which it said created "a climate of fear that compromises the exercise of free expression".

In Yopougon, the working-class pro-Gbagbo district of Abidjan known for its buzzing nightlife, the mood was gloomy on Saturday, with many residents still seeing Gbagbo as the rightful winner of the 2010 vote.

"Tell me who to vote for while my parents are languishing in Ouattara's prisons," said a woman who gave her family name as Yaba, standing amongst steaming pots at her restaurant.

By 4:00 pm, only a quarter of voters had turned out at one of Yopougon's polling stations.

One N'Guessan voter, Claude Akho, regretted the boycott call. "I tell my brothers, 'We have had friends in prison for five years. Do you want them to stay there? If you are against Ouattara, you have to say so.'"

Meanwhile, in the staunchly pro-Ouattara neighbourhood of Adobo, voters were cheering on their champion, known as "Ado" after his initials.

"Ado will build roads, he's going to bring work for young people," said 19-year-old Ousmane, who lost his mother in the violence sparked by the last election.

Preliminary results from Sunday's vote are expected early in the week.