Manu Brabo, Associated Press
TRIPOLI, Libya — Jubilant Libyans marked a major step toward democracy after decades of erratic one-man rule, voting Saturday in the first parliamentary election after last year's overthrow and killing of longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
But the joy over the historic vote was tempered by boycott calls, the burning of ballots and attacks on polling centers in Libya's restive east. It was the latest unrest in a chaotic transition that has exposed major fault lines in the oil-rich North African nation — the east-west divide and efforts by Islamists to assert power.
Lines formed outside polling centers more than an hour before they opened in the capital Tripoli, with policemen and soldiers standing guard and searching voters and election workers before they entered.
"I have a strange but beautiful feeling today," dentist Adam Thabet said as he waited his turn to cast a ballot. "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, is a key milestone after a bitter civil war that ended Gadhafi's four-decade rule.
But the desert nation of 6 million people has experienced a rocky transition 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 — which was the cradle of last year's uprising — over perceived domination by Tripoli in the west has threatened to tear the country apart.
Some easterners back a boycott of the election and on Saturday protesters torched ballot boxes in 14 out of 19 polling centers in the eastern town of Ajdabiya, said Ibrahim Fayed, a former rebel commander in the area.
On the eve of the vote, gunmen shot down a helicopter carrying polling materials near the eastern city of Benghazi, birthplace of last year's revolution, killing one election worker on board, according to Saleh Darhoub, a spokesman for the ruling National Transitional Council. The crew survived after a crash landing.
The violence continued Saturday, with protesters, some armed, attacking polling centers in the early hours in the eastern cities of Ajdabiya, Brega and Ras Lanouf, ransacking them and setting ballot papers ablaze.
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, independent candidate Faiza Ali said.
"Enough with the bloodshed," she said.
Nouri al-Abar, the head of the election commission, told reporters in Tripoli that 94 percent of polling centers nationwide were open but acknowledged that "security conditions" prevented ballots from reaching some areas and ballots were destroyed in other cases. He did not provide further details.
The uprising against Gadhafi was inspired by the Arab Spring revolts that led to the successful ouster of authoritarian leaders in Tunisia, Egypt and later Yemen. But it morphed into outright civil war as armed rebels battled Libyan regime forces for months.
Islamist parties also have gained influence in Libya and other nations following the ouster of authoritarian regimes run by strongmen like Gadhafi and Egypt's Hosni Mubarak.
There are four major contenders in the Libyan race, ranging from the Muslim Brotherhood-linked party and another Islamist coalition on one end of the spectrum to a secular-minded party led by a Western-educated former rebel prime minister on the other.
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