Middle East

Protests and tears of joy mark free Libyan poll

TRIPOLI/BENGHAZI: Crowds of joyful Libyans, some with tears in their eyes, parted with the legacy of Moammar Gadhafi's dictatorship on Saturday as they voted in the first free national election in 60 years.

But in the eastern city of Benghazi, cradle of last year's uprising but where many now want more autonomy from the interim government in Tripoli, protesters stormed a handful of polling stations and publicly burned hundreds of ballot papers.

Authorities also reported a case of gunmen preventing voters from entering polling stations in the eastern oil port town of Ras Lanuf, but said 94 percent of polling stations around the North African country were up and running normally.

Libyans are choosing a 200-member assembly which will elect a prime minister and cabinet before laying the ground for full parliamentary elections next year under a new constitution.

Candidates with Islamic agendas dominate the field of more than 3,700 hopefuls, suggesting Libya will be the next Arab Spring country - after Egypt and Tunisia - to see religious parties secure a grip on power.

In Benghazi, protesters stormed a polling station just after voting started and set fire to hundreds of ballot slips in a public square in a bid to undermine the election's credibility.

Witnesses said at least four polling stations had been hit in such attacks. One man was shot in the arm and taken to hospital with heavy bleeding after a stand-off between vote boycotters and those in favour of the elections.

"There wasn't enough security at the station to stop the attackers," Nasser Zwela, 28, told Reuters, saying protesters armed with assault rifles had stormed one local polling station and shouted at everyone to stop voting.

Yet in the capital Tripoli, voting was smooth. A loud cry of "Allahu akbar" ("God is greatest") went up inside one polling station there as voting began in a converted school building abuzz with the chatter of queuing locals.

"I am a Libyan citizen in free Libya," said Mahmud Mohammed Al-Bizamti. "I came today to be able to vote in a democratic way. Today is like a wedding for us."

Some voters struggled with procedures for casting their ballot. In one central Tripoli district, two women disappeared into a voting booth together before an election worker hurriedly explained they must vote alone.

"Some of these women are crying as they vote. It is such an emotional day," said one poll official.

Polls close at 8 p.m (1800 GMT) but meaningful partial results are not due until Sunday and a full preliminary count is not expected until Monday at the earliest.

On the eve of the vote, interim Prime Minister Abdurrahim El-Keib urged Libyans to turn out en masse to counter those who argue the new assembly will not reflect the will of the country.

Many easterners, whose region is home to the bulk of Libya's oil sector, are angry that the east has been allotted only 60 seats in the assembly compared with 102 for the west.

On Friday, armed groups shut off half of Libya's oil exports to press demands for greater representation in the assembly. At least three major oil-exporting terminals were affected.

"The country will be in a state of paralysis because no one in the government is listening to us," Hamed al-Hassi, a former rebel who now heads the High Military Council of Cyrenaica, the name of the eastern region, told Reuters.

Port agents said the oil depot closures would last 48 hours but the government sent a team on Saturday to negotiate a full reopening of a sector that provides most of Libya's revenues.

Also causing concern was the southern area of Kufra in the Sahara desert, where tribal clashes were so fierce that election observers were unable to visit, and there were reports of delays to voting in some places.

In Gadhafi's home town of Sirte, a former fishing village on the Mediterranean Sea, the mood before the polls was restrained, and some said they would not vote.

Analysts say it is hard to predict the political make-up of the new assembly, but parties and candidates professing an attachment to Islamic values dominate and very few are running on an exclusively secular ticket.

The Justice and Construction offshoot of Libya's Muslim Brotherhood is tipped to do well, as is al-Watan, the party of former CIA detainee and Islamist insurgent Abdel Hakim Belhadj.





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