Reuters International

Gabon's President Ali Bongo Ondimba votes during the presidential election in Libreville, Gabon, August 27, 2016. REUTERS/Gerauds Wilfried Obangome

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By Gerauds Wilfried Obangome

LIBREVILLE (Reuters) - Supporters of Gabon's President Ali Bongo and his chief rival both said on Sunday they were set to win an election that has proved to be the most serious challenge yet to the Bongo family's half-century rule over the tiny, oil-rich nation.

The rival sides also traded accusations of fraud allegedly committed during Saturday's vote, raising the prospect of increased tension in the wake of an uncharacteristically bitter campaign.

Despite the interior minister warning candidates against giving results ahead of their official announcement, Jean Ping, 73, the president's chief challenger, distributed figures showing him easily beating Bongo.

"The general trends indicate we're the winner of this important presidential election," Ping told reporters and a large crowd of cheering supporters gathered at his campaign headquarters in the capital Libreville.

"Despite numerous irregularities ... you have managed to thwart this regime's congenital traps of fraud."

Bongo, 57, who first won election after his father Omar died in 2009 after 42 years in power, has benefited from the power of incumbency as well as a patronage system lubricated by oil largesse.

Gabon's one-round electoral system means the winner simply requires more votes than any other candidate.

In 2009, Bongo won with 41.73 percent of the vote.

Hours before Ping's announcement, Bongo's spokesman Alain Claude Bilie By Nzé made a similar declaration, claiming that the president was poised to win another term in office.

"Even if no figure can or should be given at this stage, we are, in light of information we are receiving, able to say that our candidate ... will claim victory," he said in comments broadcast overnight on state-owned television.

He also said "massive fraud" had been observed during the vote, particularly in polling stations located in opposition strongholds.

A statement released by the interior ministry on Sunday acknowledged irregularities but offered little detail.

"The elections were calm and without major conflict ... In spite of fraud noted in some polling stations, the process is satisfactory and positive for all of the observers," it said, adding that official results would be announced on Tuesday.

An oil producer with a population of less than two million, Gabon is one of Africa's richest countries.

However, declining oil output and falling prices have resulted in budget cuts and provided fodder for opposition claims that average people have struggled under Bongo's leadership. And his re-election bid has been hobbled by a series of high-profile defections from the ruling party.

Ping, one of 10 candidates contesting the poll, is a former foreign minister and African Union Commission chairman who was a close ally of Omar Bongo.

Some opposition supporters have called into question Bongo's Gabonese nationality, claiming he was adopted from eastern Nigeria as a baby, a charge that risks fuelling xenophobic sentiment and which the president denies.

(Reporting by Gerauds Wilfried Obangome; Writing by Joe Bavier; Editing by Andrew Bolton)

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