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Arab World

Libyans take to the polls despite eastern unrest

Libyans are at the polls in the first elections since the fall of Moammar Gadhafi's regime. The vote is taking place a day after gunmen closed oil terminals in the country's east to protest against a centralized state.

Libyan voters are casting ballots to elect a 200-seat parliament, the National Congress, in the first vote in the country since Moammar Gadhafi's ouster.

The country has not seen elections since the era of late monarch King Idris, who was deposed by Gadhafi in1969 in a bloodless coup.

Around 2.7 million Libyans have registered to vote to elect the assembly, consisting of 120 directly elected members and 80 contenders from party lists.

Altogether, 3,707 candidates are running in 72 districts across the country.

The National Congress will be an interim legislature tasked with choosing a new government to replace the National Transitional Council (NTC).

Originally, the National Congress was also supposed to draft a new constitution. But the NTC changed the rules prior to the vote, mandating that a separate 60-member body be elected to draft the constitution at a later date.

Armed protests

The elections come amid unrest, particularly in Libya's east, where there have been calls for a boycott.

The head of Libya's electoral commission, Nouri al-Abar, told a news conference that 94 percent of polling stations nationwide were open. But he acknowledged that "security conditions" had prevented ballots from reaching some polling stations and that in other cases ballots were destroyed.  

"Some of the polling stations were not opened," al-Abar said. "Because of security reasons, logistical materials haven't reached them."

"We are currently dealing with this, sending material to the polling stations so they can start voting," the commission chief added.

Armed protesters on Friday forced the shutdown of at least three oil terminals in eastern Libya, in protest against the distribution of parliamentary seats, which they claim favors the country's west.

The gunmen forced a stop to pumping and loading at the terminal at Haruj in Ras Lanuf. They also blocked the oil port of Al-Sidra, located 35 kilometers (20 miles) to the west of Ras Lanuf, and shut down the terminal at Brega.

"The harbor is closed," said Tumi Shakari, supervisor at a terminal in Ras Lanuf. "The pumping and loading of oil has been stopped….The group that came were federalists."  

 Smoke rising from an oil refinery in the eastern oil town of Brega, Libya.

The refinery in Brega was among those closed

The Reuters news agency, citing oil port agents, reported that the terminal closures were supposed to last 48 hours. The Libyan government reportedly sent a negotiating team on Saturday to negotiate the re-opening of the terminals.  

Distribution of power

Protesters and ex-rebel fighters claim that the distribution of seats in the legislature is designed to give the west, seat of the national capital Tripoli, more power than the east.

The outgoing National Transitional Council allocated 100 seats to the west, 60 to the east and 40 to the south. The distribution is based on population.

Armed men on Friday fired on a helicopter carrying ballots, killing one election worker. The aircraft made a crash landing near Benina International Airport on the outskirts of the eastern city of Benghazi.

On Sunday, gunmen sacked election offices in Benghazi, where the revolution against Gadhafi began in March 2011.

The vast north African nation remains deeply divided among its sparsely populated regions. Libya's east, with its power center in Benghazi, is demanding a federal power structure that would grant it autonomy from Tripoli.

"We don't want Tripoli to rule all of Libya," said Fadallah Haroun, a former rebel commander located in Benghazi.

Under Gadhafi's 40-year reign, the western province of Tripolitana was often politically favored over the eastern province of Cyrenaica.

slk, tj /rc (AP, AFP, dpa, Reuters)