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Second round likely in Maldives presidential race; challenger leads

By Mohamed Junayd

MALE (Reuters) -Maldives President Ibrahim Solih and his main challenger Mohamed Muizzu are likely to face off in a second round of a presidential election, with results from Saturday's first round showing Muizzu ahead but short of the 50% needed to win outright.

With nearly 195,000 votes counted, Muizzu, seen as favouring closer ties with China, led Solih, who has promoted ongoing warm ties with India, 46% to 40%. Authorities said around 75% of the 282,000 eligible voters had cast ballots.

Solih, seeking a second five-year term, had championed an "India-first" policy during his time in power. The coalition backing Muizzu has launched an "India out" campaign, promising to remove a small Indian military presence of several surveillance aircraft and some 75 personnel.

Muizzu entered the fray after former President Abdulla Yameen was banned from contesting the election by the Supreme Court in August following a conviction for corruption and money laundering.

Thousands turned out early at over 570 polling stations across 187 islands. Maldivians were also voting at polling stations in India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Britain and Abu Dhabi.

"We thought turnout might be low during the early stages. However, we have been surprised with many people queuing very early," Fuwad Thowfeek, the president of the Elections Commission told Reuters. "So far, everything is moving smoothly without any disruptions or delays."

(Reporting by Mohamed Junayd; Writing by Uditha Jayasinghe; Editing by Nick Macfie and William Mallard)