Liberia's new Nobel laureate, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, was heading Thursday for a run-off vote in her re-election bid following polls seen as a test of the nation's fragile eight-year peace.
The country's electoral commission released a first batch of official results, giving Sirleaf 86,874 votes (44.5 percent), slightly ahead of her main rival Winston Tubman with 51,771 (26.5 percent) and ex-warlord and senator Prince Johnson in third place with 26,394 (13.5 percent).
Only 195,175 votes have been officially validated and voter turnout so far was put at 70.2 percent.
Unofficial figures tallied by a media monitoring group collecting results posted at individual polling stations showed the same dynamic with nearly 400,000 votes counted.
In third place, Johnson, who ordered and filmed the execution of dictator Samuel Doe in 1990, could prove a surprise kingmaker in an eventual second round of voting.
"I will decide whom to support, I don't want to jump the gun, that's my trump card," Johnson told AFP.
However only 2.5 percent of official votes were in from Montserrado County, home to the capital and to one million of the country's four million people.
A large swathe of Tubman Boulevard was closed off for the results announcement, with a heavy presence of UN soldiers and riot police and two helicopters circling overhead.
The electoral commission has until October 26 to announce the final results.
Polls chief James Fromayan said every ballot could be accounted for, after complaints of ballot stuffing by the opposition CDC.
The party has complained -- but not through official channels - about a lack of clarity about the whereabouts of 800,000 excess ballot papers which had been printed, saying this was "outrageous."
Candidates must win an absolute majority to claim victory and avert a run-off on November 8.
Sirleaf was jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize prize just days before Tuesday's vote, for her work in rebuilding the country and promoting women's rights after 14 years of civil war in which some 250,000 people were killed.
She faces stiff opposition from Tubman, 70, a Harvard-trained lawyer who has said she does not deserve the prize.
Tubman has accused Sirleaf of failing to bring about reconciliation and spotlighted her shady ties to warlord-turned-president Charles Taylor, saying not much has changed for the average person in a country with 80 percent unemployment.
But Sirleaf says she wants more time to rebuild the "broken country", whose fragile democracy is facing a key test in the election, the first organised by Liberians themselves.
The 8,000-strong UN mission in Liberia is providing security back-up as the country prepares for the announcement of the results, often the most potentially dangerous moment in African elections.
Poll chief James Fromayan said the incident-free vote showed the country had matured to reach "a new dimension where the Liberian people chose the ballot box over the barrel of a gun."
UN chief Ban Ki-moon welcomed the "smooth holding" of the elections.
"This election is an important milestone in the efforts to consolidate peace and democracy in the country," his spokesman said.
Observers warn that the Liberia's peace is still fragile as victims of a war fought by numerous rebel factions, some using drugged-up child soldiers and maiming, raping and terrorising citizens, had yet to heal.
Sirleaf has been criticised for dragging her feet in implementing recommendations by a Truth and Reconciliation Commission which names her on a list of people who should be barred from public office for backing Taylor.
Taylor is currently awaiting judgement by the International Criminal Court for war crimes committed in neighbouring Sierra Leone, but he has never been prosecuted for atrocities committed in his own country.