Heavy arms fire broke out in the streets of Kampala tonight after former Ugandan president Milton Obote's party took an early lead in the country's tainted elections.

Partial returns from Wednesday's parliamentary elections announced this evening over the national radio gave Obote 52 seats, 11 short of a majority. But a 20-hour takeover of the ballot-counting procedure by the country's military rulers, which ended at midday today after international pressure, cast the eventual result in doubt for many Ugandans.

Yesterday, the rival Democratic Party had claimed victory based on reports from party agents. Shortly thereafter, however, Paulo Muwanga, chairman of the military commission running the country, took over sole control of the election and forbade publication of any results.

In the returns announced on the radio this evening, the Democratic Party had 35 seats and the Uganda Patriotic Movement one. Final results are expected Saturday.

There was no official declaration of an Obote victory. It was thought that election officials were waiting until one party achieved a numerical majority.

But restoration of Obote, who was overhtrown by Idi Amin in 1971, in such dubious circumstances would cast a cloud over hopes that this strife-torn East African country can return to normal after a decade of mass murder and chaos.

Shooting started shortly after dark in many parts of the city and continued in a sustained fashion for more than an hour. Three hours later sporadic firing, as is common in Kampala every night, could still be heard.

Army Commander Maj. Gen. Tito Okello broadcast an appeal for calm.

Guests at the Speke Hotel, including members of the Commonwealth group who have been observing the elections, hit the floor as recoilless rifle, machine-gun and small arms fire erupted outside the hotel. The firing involved people either celebrating or opposing Obote's apparent impending victory.

There have been fears that the election, the first in the country in 18 years, could be followed by civil unrest.

The controversy over vote-counting did nothing to ease these fears.

At noon today, after an hour-long meeting with the Commonwealth observers representing Britain and its former colonies, Mulwanga relented and returned to the original election procedure allowing the electoral commission to announce the results.

It was reported that Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere, who has 10,000 troops in the country in the aftermath of Amin's overthrow and Western nations including the United States and Britain, pressured Muwanga to restore the electoral process.

In Washington, the State Department called on Ugandan authorities to let the voice of the people be heard, Reuter reported.

Spokesman John Cannon said the situation in Uganda was far from clear in the aftermath of the elections. He added that U.S. officials were awaiting the results. He said: "We hope Ugandan authorities will allow the voice of the people to be accurately heard."

Observers pointed out that Muwanga's move yesterday gave the military commission, which backed Obote, almost a day to tamper with the results even though there were safeguards built into the process.

Paul Ssemorerere, leader of the Roman Catholic-based Democratic Party, said today, "This has not been a good afternoon. The trend on the official radio is clear, but reports from the field give a very upsetting picture. They don't appear to be regular. There are a number of questions."

The party earlier had accused Obote and Muwanga of trying to steal the election.

Further illustrating the distrust in the vote-counting process, one diplomat said, "The final falsifications haven't come in yet."