VATICAN CITY - White smoke rose from the Sistine Chapel on Wednesday and the bells of St. Peter's rang out, signaling cardinals had elected a new pope to succeed Benedict and take charge of the troubled Roman Catholic Church.
The election came on the first full day of voting by the 115 cardinal-electors, who secluded themselves behind the Vatican's mediaeval walls on Tuesday afternoon -- more quickly than many had expected.
A joyous crowd in St. Peter's Square started cheering and applauding as the first puffs of smoke emerged, braving persistent rain and chill winds to get a glimpse of history.
The identity of the pope will be announced to the world from the central balcony of St. Peter's Basilica shortly, with the new pontiff then stepping forward to deliver his first public address and blessing to the gathered faithful.
Whoever has been chosen to become the 266th pontiff in the Church's 2,000-year history faces a daunting array of problems, including sex abuse scandals, infighting within the Vatican bureaucracy and the growing spread of secularism.
Benedict abdicated unexpectedly last month, saying he was no longer strong enough to confront the challenges besetting the Church, the world's largest organisation with an estimated 1.2 billion faithful.
No clear-cut front runner had emerged in the days before the conclave, with some prelates seeking a strong manager to reform the much criticised central administration, while others want to see a powerful pastor to spread the word of the Church.
Italy's Angelo Scola and Brazil's Odilo Scherer were seen as strong contenders. The former would return the papacy to Italy after 35 years in the hands of Poland's John Paul II and the German Benedict XVI. Scherer would be the first non-European pope since Syrian-born Gregory III in the 8th century.
However, a host of other candidates have also been mentioned as "papabili" - potential popes - including U.S. cardinals Timothy Dolan and Sean O'Malley, Canada's Marc Ouellet and Argentina's Leonardo Sandri.
Cardinals held an initial inconclusive vote on Tuesday evening and a further two followed on Wednesday morning. They returned to the Sistine Chapel at 4.00 p.m.