Sudan geared up on Saturday for its first multi-party elections in 24 years, with a 16-million-strong electorate eligible to vote for President, MPs and local representatives.

President Omar al-Beshir, who staged a marathon well-organised campaign that took him to all corners of the country, is set later in the day to meet the former U.S. President, Jimmy Carter, whose Carter Centre is monitoring the elections.

Mr. Carter said on Friday he expected polling to proceed without major hurdles, though some delays could be expected in more remote areas. “We see no reasons for any concern except on a few isolated stations way out,” said Mr. Carter. Voting materials “may get there a bit late, but they will have three days at least in which to vote,” he told reporters in the capital.

In the run-up to the elections, opposition parties accused Mr. Beshir's ruling National Congress Party of fraud. A Slovenian company was to have printed the presidential ballot papers, but the Election Commission gave the contract instead to a state-owned printer, causing fury among the opposition who said this would allow ballot stuffing.

Security forces deployed in strength ahead of the first multi-party election since 1986, as did international peacekeepers in both the war-torn western region of Darfur and in the south.

The credibility of the April 11-13 elections has been dented by a growing opposition boycott. The former Prime Minister, Sadiq al-Mahdi, who won Sudan's last multi-party elections, has pulled out of the race.

The southern former rebel Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) said it was withdrawing not only from the presidential vote but also from parliamentary and local elections in all northern areas except disputed districts of Blue Nile and South Kordofan. The SPLM presidential candidate, Yasser Arman, who had been considered Mr. Beshir's main challenger, has characterised the vote as nothing more than a one-man show for Mr. Beshir.

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