TRIPOLI: Libyans, some with tears of joy in their eyes, queued to vote in their first free national election in 60 years on Saturday, a poll designed to shake off the legacy of Muammar Gaddafi but which risks being hijacked by violence.

Libyans will choose 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 footholds in power after last year's uprisings.

But the credibility of the vote will be wrecked if armed militia with regional  or  tribal loyalties discourage voters from turning out, or if disputes over the outcome degenerate into pitched battles between rival factions.

A loud cry of "Allahu akbar" ("God is greatest") went up inside a polling station in central Tripoli as the first woman cast her vote in a converted school building abuzz with the chatter of hundreds of queueing locals.

"I can't describe the feeling. We paid the price, I have two martyrs in my family. I am certain the future will be good, Libya will be successful," Zainab Masri, a 50-year-old teacher, said of her first experience of voting.

"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."

The greatest threat comes from the eastern region around the city of Benghazi, cradle of the NATO-backed uprising that ousted Gaddafi nearly a year ago but which complains of neglect by the interim government in Tripoli in the west.
Yet early voting there was calm and many ignored calls to boycott the election in protest that the east has been allotted only 60 seats in the assembly compared to 102 for the west.

"I brought my children to see this," mother-of-five Hoda Wada said as she waved an ink-stained finger as proof she had voted. "It is such a day of festivities."


On Friday, armed groups in the east shut off Libya's oil exports to press their demands for greater representation in the new national 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 depots 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.

In the latest attack on election authorities in the east, a helicopter carrying voting material had to make an emergency landing near Benghazi on Friday after being struck by anti-aircraft fire. One person on board was killed.

"There is no security in this country," complained Emad El-Sayih, deputy head of the High National Election Commission.

Concerns exist elsewhere. In the isolated southern area of Kufra in the Saharan desert, tribal clashes are so fierce that election observers will be unable to visit, and some question whether the vote can proceed in certain areas there.

In Gaddafi's hometown of Sirte, a former fishing village on the southern rim of the Mediterranean Sea, the mood ahead of the polls was restrained, with some saying they would not vote.

"They should take care of us first, look at our homes," said Abed Mohammed, a resident of District Two neighbourhood which saw some of the heaviest fighting and where Gaddafi was believed to have hidden before being captured and killed.

While analysts say it is hard to predict the political make-up of the new assembly, 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.

Polls close at 8 p.m (1800 GMT) but meaninful partial results are not due until Sunday.


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