By Richard Valdmanis and Alphonso Toweh
MONROVIA (Reuters) - Liberia's Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf has a narrow vote lead over her main presidential rival Winston Tubman, according to a tally by a local independent media group of ballot slips counted so far on Wednesday.
Johnson-Sirleaf collected just over 96,000 of 220,000 votes counted so far, Tubman just under 80,000, and ex-rebel Prince Johnson just under 20,000, the Liberia Media Center said. The tally was based on its reporters calling in results that were being pinned up at polling stations across the country.
About 1.8 million Liberians registered to vote in Tuesday's election, the second since its 1989-2003 civil war. If no candidate wins an outright majority, the two front-runners from a field of 16 go into a run-off vote scheduled for early November.
Official preliminary results were not expected till Thursday, but small crowds gathered at polling stations across the West African state to look at results as they were posted.
"As we are looking at it, it is free and fair," said Jackson Jargbah, a 29-year-old student at a polling station in Monrovia.
"I don't think any other party will come between them. For me, looking at this, there will be a runoff," he added, pointing to the pink sheet taped to the wall of the polling station bearing the Liberian National Election Commission blue seal.
Johnson-Sirleaf got a pre-poll boost with her award of the Nobel Peace Prize last Friday, but rivals have said Liberians would judge her on her success in fighting poverty in a country with an average annual income of $300 a head.
Voting on Tuesday passed peacefully in the capital Monrovia. Observer groups said they had not received any reports of trouble in the country of four million people, but have expressed concern that the results could be a flashpoint.
Attahiru Jega, head of the observation mission from West African bloc ECOWAS, said the mission was of the view that there were no major irregularities and incidents of violence.
"It estimated that on the whole, the elections of October 11, 2011 were conducted under acceptable conditions of freedom of voters and transparency of the process," Jega said.
"We feel fine, the election was peaceful, there were no perturbances," said Boye Morgan, 52, one of a group of men drinking tea and chatting outside a shop on Carey Street, one of the capital's main thoroughfares.
The front pages of local newspapers carried banner headlines hailing the peaceful vote and the apparent high turnout, despite heavy rain during much of the day.
Liberia's New Democrat carried the headline "CDC To Accept Results If.," referring to the party of Tubman, which has said it was 100 percent confident he will win and that its supporters would reject defeat if the vote was not considered free and fair.
A dispute over the results of the 2005 election that brought Johnson-Sirleaf to power as Africa's first freely elected female head of state triggered days of rioting.
"I hope everybody, as I have appealed and appealed, will proceed peacefully and accept the results according to the rules," Special Representative to the U.N. Secretary General Ellen Margreth Loj told Reuters on Tuesday. U.N. peacekeepers have been in the country since the war.
Eight years into peace, Liberia has seen growing investment in its iron and gold mines and has convinced donors to waive most of its debt, though many residents complain of a lack of basic services, high food prices, rampant crime and corruption.
A peaceful, free and fair election could bolster growing investor confidence in the country, which is also hoping to strike oil offshore.
Miners ArcelorMittal and BHP Billiton and oil companies Anadarko, Tullow and Chevron are active in the country.
(Additional reporting by Clair MacDougall; Writing by Richard Valdmanis; Editing by Giles Elgood)