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Originally published Sunday, April 15, 2012 at 7:10 PM

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East Timor holds run-off vote for new president

Two former guerrilla leaders vied for East Timor's presidency Monday, each hoping to steer the young, often-troubled nation after U.N. peacekeeping troops begin their planned withdrawal later this year.

Associated Press

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DILI, East Timor —

Two former guerrilla leaders vied for East Timor's presidency Monday, each hoping to steer the young, often-troubled nation after U.N. peacekeeping troops begin their planned withdrawal later this year.

Francisco "Lu Olo" Guterres and Taur Matan Ruak - running neck-and-neck after incumbent Jose Ramos-Horta was knocked out in the first round of voting - joined small lines in the dusty capital, Dili, to cast their ballots.

While the role of president is largely ceremonial, the winner has the potential to help unify Asia's newest and poorest nation, which is still recovering from its 1999 break for independence following nearly a quarter-century of Indonesian occupation.

Withdrawing Indonesian troops and their militia proxies killed nearly 1,500, and the road to democracy has been anything but easy. Gang violence and splits in the army and police at times have turned deadly - and six years ago resulted in the collapse of the government.

Monday's voting was largely peaceful, with only a few reported incidents - a vast improvement from the last polls.

While the homes of several political supporters were set on fire during campaigning and rocks were thrown last week at Ruak's headquarters, security forces were able to quickly bring the situation under control.

"The only real concern now is, if the voting is very close, we could see supporters of the losing team take this out publicly," said Damien Kingsbury, an Australian academic familiar with East Timor politics. He said there have been unsubstantiated allegations on both sides of intimidation.

Monday's winner may not have much power, but he has the ability, like Nobel Peace Prize laureate Ramos-Horta did, to lead the country at a crucial time.

Parliamentary elections - to select a new government - are to be held July 7. If peaceful, Australian Defense Minister Stephen Smith says discussions will then begin about the withdrawal of 400 international peacekeepers still deployed in the country.

They could start heading home before the end of the year.

Justino Menezes, who was among more than 700,000 eligible voters, said he wants most to see his country develop economically.

"It's time to move forward, and to move forward without fear," the 61-year-old farmer said.

Many people earn less than 50 cents a day. Roads are still in disrepair. There is little access to clean water or health services. And the capital is littered with abandoned, burned-out buildings where the homeless squat.

As was the case in the country's two previous presidential elections, the candidates were both heroes in East Timor's 24-year freedom fight.

Lu Olo, the 57-year-old candidate for the opposition Fretilin party, spent nearly half his life battling Indonesian rule as a commander in the guerrilla army.

He is university-educated and has been active in politics in recent years.

Ruak, 55, former chief of the guerrilla force, is a relative newcomer and is running as an independent.

He called repeatedly during his campaign for universal military service, something that failed to resonate with many voters who see such words as reminders of war and civil strife.

But he has the backing of several high-profile figures, including Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao.

Counting began immediately after polls closed early Monday afternoon. Official results were expected Wednesday.

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