* Riot police, youths square off in Copper Belt
* Sata victory could cause concern among investors
* Hacker attack slows down counting of votes (Adds latest results, troop movements)
By Chris Mfula
LUSAKA, Sept 22 (Reuters) - Zambian youths went on the rampage on Thursday in the northern Copper Belt, a stronghold of opposition leader Michael Sata who has a firm lead in the race to be next president, venting their frustration with a slow vote count.
Despite the strong showing for 74-year-old Sata, the drip-by-drip release of results from Tuesday’s election provoked rumours of vote rigging, angering his supporters in particular.
The youths fought running battles with riot police in the towns of Ndola and Kitwe, 250 km (150 miles) north of Lusaka, setting fire to vehicles and markets in the normally peaceful southern African country’s mining heartland.
“They are on the streets with stones and we can only urge them to stop the riotous behaviour,” Copper Belt police chief Martin Malama told Reuters. There were no reports of injuries and it was too early to assess the extent of damage, he added.
The latest tally showed Sata with 994,094 votes against 808,596 for incumbent Rupiah Banda, leader of the Movement for Multi-party Democracy (MMD) party that has run Zambia since one-party rule ended in 1991.
The Election Commission tally was based on 116 out of 150 constituencies. Final results could come on Friday morning.
Hackers who hit the Election Commission’s website overnight, posting false results showing Sata on course for a landslide, added to the confusion and tension of what was already a neck-and-neck run-off between two old rivals.
Despite the lead for Sata, a vocal critic of Chinese mining investment in Africa’s biggest copper producer, Banda is expected to close the gap as rural constituencies which he counts as his major supporters start to deliver their results.
The race may therefore go right to the wire as it did in a 2008 run-off which Sata, nicknamed “King Cobra” for his sharp tongue, lost by just 35,000 votes.
Banda urged calm but firm police action. “The President further calls upon the police to bring to book whoever was instigating the violent act,” said a statement issued by state house. “Violence has no place in resolving problems”
Military trucks with armed soldiers have been rolling through the streets of Ndola to prevent further violence, witnesses said.
State radio reported that crowds of protesters had also blocked the main road between Kitwe and Chingola, another mining town near the border with Democratic Republic of Congo, suggesting high levels of tension across the region.
Despite the unrest, Election Commission Chairwoman Irene Mambilima said she would not be rushed into releasing results that had not been double- and triple-checked.
“The verification of these results is very important. We ask political parties to tell their supporters to remain peaceful,” she told reporters, adding that the full result should be known by Thursday evening.
The High Court in Lusaka banned three private media outlets on Thursday from speculating on the outcome of the Sept. 20 election, further angering Sata’s young urban supporters.
The European Union’s observer mission said the poll had been generally well organised and that ballot counting had gone smoothly barring a few glitches, but it criticised state media for lacking “any degree of balance” during the campaign.
Sata toned down his rhetoric against foreign mining firms in the closing stages of the six-week campaign but a victory for him would still cloud the investment outlook.
Political risk analysts, who were divided in predicting the result, said a Sata defeat might provoke unrest although they added that this was likely to be short-lived and have no impact on copper output or the wider economy.
“If Sata loses a close election and rejects the outcome there will be some unrest in Lusaka and the Copper Belt but it will be contained,” research firm Eurasia said. (Writing by Ed Cropley; Editing by Marius Bosch and David Stamp)