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Benghazi - Hundreds of protesters burned ballots to demand greater representation although most residents of the Mediterranean city of Benghazi voted on Saturday in historic elections vowing to build a new Libya.
Gunfire echoed after around 200 demonstrators filled a major square in the eastern city, which was the cradle of last year's revolt that ousted dictator Muammar Gaddafi.
They were encircled by cars of supporters of the vote for a national assembly and later by at least a dozen military vehicles whose forces fired into the air in a show of strength.
But as soon as the armed forces left, the protesters began to attack the civilian cars, damaging several of them.
“We are the ones who started the rebellion and now nobody is bothered about us. Nobody wants to talk to us. All we are asking for is a proper democratic process,” said one demonstrator, who gave his name as Fuad al-Obeidi.
“Let the constitution be written first then hold the elections with equal number of seats for every region. I have boycotted the election along with my family,” the 32-year-old government employee told AFP.
Abduljawad Shadwan, a 49-year-old lecturer who supports the election process, condemned the protesters.
“I can understand their views but this is not the right way. We are building a new Libya and actions like these only deny the building of a new country,” said Shadwan.
“But this will not stop the progress of Libya. The result of the election will be unprecedented. It will be historic,” he added.
Elsewhere, gunmen attacked a polling station at Tulay Tala school in Benghazi Jadida in the city's southwest, destroying the ballot boxes and firing into the air before fleeing, according to witnesses.
“Around 60 men and some women stormed the school at around 1:00 pm (1100 GMT) before breaking the ballot boxes and stealing some election material,” said Ahmed Saleh, an election observer at the school.
“Some armed men fired in the air. Some bullets hit the school building, shattering the glass. They were chanting 'Allahu akbar' (God is greatest),” he told AFP.
Earlier, voting was marred by attacks by protesters calling for greater representation at one polling centre in the city and some other parts of eastern Libya.
They forced the closure of several polling stations in areas outside Benghazi, but failed to dampen the enthusiasm of most of the city's residents to cast their ballot.
“I am voting today for a new Libya which we will create from the blood shed by our martyrs,” said Abdel Jalil Mansur, who works at Benghazi airport.
“The blood of our martyrs will not go to waste,” he said as he stepped out of Al-Hurriyah polling station in central Benghazi carrying his five-year-old daughter, Arwa, draped in the new Libyan flag.
Hueida Abdul Sheikh, a 47-year-old mother, was one of the first voters in Benghazi in the hope that the vote she cast will help build the future for her and her three children.
“I feel like my life has been wasted so far but now my children will have a better life. All they need is a push, and I believe the new leaders will give that push so that children can achieve their ambitions,” she said.
Another voter, policeman Yussef Amer Ali, said he had voted for “peace and security” in the hope that “all Libyans will achieve their dreams in this new country.”
Benghazi was the first city to rebel against the regime of Gaddafi, with protesters, inspired by the Arab Spring uprising in neighbouring Egypt and Tunisia, pouring out onto the streets in February 2011.
That initial protest in Libya's second-largest city spread rapidly to engulf the entire country. It ended with the capture and killing of Kadhafi on October 20 after a revolt supported by powerful NATO air cover.
On Saturday, groups of young men carrying machineguns were patrolling various streets, especially near polling centres, offering what they said was “protection to voters and voting centres.”
But protesters demanding greater representation for eastern Libya, forcefully closed several polling stations.
Some voting centres were also shut in the eastern city of Ajdabiya, where a depot containing electoral material was torched earlier this week, an official in Benghazi told AFP.
Another official said voting was disrupted at oasis towns in southeastern Libya, including Jalo and Ojla, after federalism supporters prevented a plane carrying polling material from taking off.
Abdeljawad al-Badin, spokesman of the self-appointed Cyrenaica Council, said voters in Quba, near the town of Derna, were boycotting the electoral process altogether.
Interim leader Mustafa Abdel Jalil, who voted in his eastern home town of Al-Bayda, told AFP “we hope that our brothers in Benghazi will stay away from such problems and that the voting will go ahead as planned.” - Sapa-AFP