OUIDAH, Benin (AP) - It was National Voodoo Day in this west African land and participants in flowing robes rubbed shoulders with American tourists as some 10,000 people gathered Thursday for prayers, sacrifices and libations.

The annual festival is held in tents decorated with the flags of different voodoo sects on a beach in the picturesque, coastal town of Ouidah, about 15 miles west of the commercial capital, Cotonou.

Daagbo Hounon Houna, head of the Voodoo sect in Ouidah, lead prayers and a benediction before sacrificing goats and chickens on a seaside altar.

At least 60 percent of Benin's 6.3 million people practice voodoo--a tradition that holds, in part, that life derives from the natural forces of earth, water, fire and air.

Countless Africans shipped into slavery from this lagoon-lined strip of the south Atlantic--then called the Slave Coast--took the legacy of voodoo with them to the Caribbean, American South, and elsewhere.

Today, scores of Americans and Haitians return every year to attend the Jan. 10 festival.

"I am proud to continue the traditions of my ancestors, who originated from Benin," said Dah Kpogninou, leader of a voodoo sect in Haiti who regularly attends the festival at the invitation of a participant from northern Benin. He was dressed in multicolored African robes, with beads hanging round his neck and wrists.

Through the years, the festival has also become a tourist attraction, drawing visitors from France, Italy, the United States and beyond.

"It's a wonderful way to begin the new year," said Linda Swift, a social worker from Chicago, who was attending for the first time.

Despite Hollywood images of zombies and pin-skewered voodoo dolls, the religion now draws followers from a variety of racial, religious and cultural backgrounds.

"Voodoo is above all about love and peace, but also the respect for tradition," explained Kpodjinou Finagnon, a French man who became an initiate in Benin. "Voodoo has brought me great serenity."

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