The rightist Republican Nationalist Alliance claimed victory Monday over the governing centrists in a presidential vote that leftist rebels tried to thwart with nationwide attacks.
The military said six soldiers and 23 guerrillas died in clashes during Sunday's balloting. Security forces killed three journalists - two Salvadorans and a Dutchman.The guerrillas lifted on Monday the road transport ban that paralyzed traffic for four days, but rebels sabotaged communications and power lines, slowing the vote count.
Presidential candidate Alfredo Cristiani, a wealthy coffee grower, said his party's unofficial tally showed him leading with 54 percent of the vote with about 75 percent of the ballots counted.
"We are sure and we proclaim ourselves the victors," said Roberto D'Aubuisson, founder of the party known as ARENA.
That would leave Washington supporting a government run by a party long associated with extremism. In elections last March, ARENA wrested control of the National Assembly from the Christian Democrats.
The rebels claimed a low voter turnout - unofficially estimated at 60 percent - rendered the results meaningless.
Their Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front had called for a boycott and mounted widespread attacks to keep voters at home, although they promised not to attack those who went to the polls.
Jorge Alberto Diaz of the Central Elections Council told Radio YSU the council would not have a preliminary vote count until late Monday. Diaz said the results were delayed because local officials had trouble reporting results by telephone.
Unofficial reports by a television station, the U.S. Embassy and the leftist Democratic Convergence party indicated ARENA gained the majority needed to avoid a runoff.
A team of 21 U.S. observers said the vote appeared to have been fair, but one observer said violence frightened many people away.
"There is no question that the intimidation of the (rebels) is working," said William Doherty, an AFL-CIO official on the team.
Cristiani, 41, campaigned as a moderate. However, at his side throughout the campaign was D'Aubuisson, a former army major accused of links to right-wing death squads.
The Christian Democrats said they would have no immediate comment on the returns. Their candidate was Fidel Chavez Mena, a 49-year-old lawyer.
The United States has sent $3.5 billion in military and economic aid to the government during its 9-year-old war with the rebels that has left 70,000 dead, mostly civilians.
U.S. policy in El Salvador has been aimed at shoring up a centrist government represented by the Christian Democrats and President Jose Napoleon Duarte, who is dying of liver cancer and leaves office June 1.
Some U.S. lawmakers have said that if ARENA wins, the United States should re-evaluate its policy. Among the election observers was Rep. Tony Coelho, D-Calif., who said Congress will need to debate whether to continue current levels of military and economic aid.