Libyans Choose Parliament In 1st Nationwide Vote In Decades

by
staff
Jubilant Libyans chose a new parliament Saturday in their first nationwide vote in decades, but violence and protests in the restive east underscored the challenges ahead as the north African nation struggles to restore stability after the ouster of longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

Libyans hold up their ink-marked fingers to show they voted as they celebrate the election Saturday in Martyrs' Square in Tripoli.

TRIPOLI, Libya -- Jubilant Libyans chose a new parliament Saturday in their first nationwide vote in decades, but violence and protests in the restive east underscored the challenges ahead as the north African nation struggles to restore stability after the ouster of longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

One person was killed and two wounded in a gun battle between security forces and anti-election protesters in the eastern city of Ajdabiya, said Nouri al-Abari, head of the election commission. He said the polling center targeted by the protesters was later reopened and voting resumed.

The shootings followed a spate of attacks on polling centers in the country's east, which was the cradle of the revolution against Gadhafi but has become increasingly angry over the perceived domination of power by rivals in Tripoli, the capital.

The vote capped a chaotic transition that has exposed major fault lines ranging from the east-west divide to efforts by Islamists to assert power.

Lines formed outside polling centers more than an hour before they opened in Tripoli, with policemen and soldiers searching voters before they entered.

Voters flashed the V-for-victory sign as they entered polling centers. Motorists honked their horns as they drove past.

"I have a strange but beautiful feeling today," Adam Thabet said as he waited his turn to vote. "We are free at last after years of fear. We knew this day would come, but we were afraid it would take a lot longer."

The election for a 200-seat parliament, which will be tasked with forming a new government, was a key milestone after a bitter civil war that ended Gadhafi's four-decade rule. It was the first time Libyans have voted for a parliament since 1964, five years before Gadhafi's military coup that toppled the monarchy.

But the desert nation of 6 million people has fallen into turmoil since Gadhafi was killed by rebel forces in his home city of Sirte in late October. Armed militias operate independently, refusing to be brought under the umbrella of a national army, and deepening regional and tribal divisions erupt into violence with alarming frequency.

Growing resentment in the east and the inability to rein in unruly militias have threatened to tear the country apart.

Some easterners boycotted the election, and protesters torched ballot boxes in 14 out of 19 polling centers in Ajdabiya.

On the eve of the vote, gunmen shot down a helicopter Friday carrying polling materials near the eastern city of Benghazi, birthplace of last year's revolution, killing one election worker on board. The crew survived after a crash landing.

Reflecting the lawlessness that has plagued the country since Gadhafi's ouster, protesters attacked a polling station in Benghazi, only to be driven back by voters who fired their own weapons in the air, candidate Faiza Ali said.

"Enough with the bloodshed," she said.