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Nigeria's ruling party takes lead in elections amid fraud allegations

LAGOS, Nigeria -- The president's ruling party took a commanding lead yesterday in state elections marred by allegations of fraud and by clashes that left at least 21 people dead.

The chaotic Saturday elections for state lawmakers and governors bode ill for a crucial presidential vote this month to set up the country's first-ever handover of power between elected civilians. Nigeria's democratic experiment could be imperiled if enough of the country's 61 million voters reject the April 21 election.

The country's electoral commission released partial results showing that President Olusegun Obasanjo's party won 10 of 12 states where tallies have been completed.

"Virtually everywhere, the elections were a sham," said Lai Mohammed, a spokesman for the Action Congress party of Vice President Atiku Abubakar, a staunch political foe of the president. "We are not going to accept these results."

Abubakar fell out with Obasanjo last year after the vice president helped quash a drive by the president's supporters to amend the constitution and allow a third elected term for Obasanjo, whose 1999 election ended decades of near-constant military rule and coups d'etat.

Abubakar was subsequently barred from the race by the electoral commission, which based its decision on findings by an executive panel that the vice president stole government funds.

He denies the allegations and has launched legal proceedings to rejoin the race. The Supreme Court is to make its ruling today.

Most of the deaths during Saturday's vote occurred during fights between supporters of rival political parties or during attempts to steal ballot boxes or otherwise skew the outcome of the vote, according to news reports.

Police Inspector General Sunday Ehindero told state television that a preliminary tally showed 21 dead and 218 arrests.

Nigeria's private daily newspapers reported that between 41 and 52 died.