Collected ballot boxes, from different polling stations, to be checked for counting in Tripoli on July 8, 2012.
Credit: Mahmud Turkia

TRIPOLI, Libya - International observers declared Libya's landmark national assembly election a success on Monday, saying violent incidents and anti-vote protests in the restive east failed to stop Libyans turning out in large numbers.

Early but inconclusive results started to emerge on Monday evening from the North African state's first free national election in six decades that caps last year's uprising against strongman Muammar Gaddafi.

"It is remarkable that nearly all Libyans cast their ballot free from fear or intimidation," Alexander Graf Lambsdorff of the European Union Assessment Team told a news conference.

"These incidents do not put into question the national integrity of the elections as a whole," he said, referring to the theft and burning of a number of ballot boxes and protests by demonstrators seeking more autonomy for the east of the country. Two people were reported killed in the unrest.

The EU team toured half a dozen major cities including the capital Tripoli and the eastern city of Benghazi, the fount of the uprising, but did not go to the desert south, where security remains precarious because of tribal clashes.

The U.S.-based Carter Center said it also did not inspect voting in thew south.

"Eleven months after the building of a new nation, there are bound to be spoilers ... Libyans determined to continue with the voting process is what gives us hope for the future," said Carter Center vice-president of peace programmes John Stremlau.

Nearly 1.8 million of 2.8 million registered voters cast their ballots, a turnout of around 65 percent, authorities said.

Partial tallies from a handful of constituencies announced on Monday showed that a party bloc led by wartime rebel prime minister Mahmoud Jibril was ahead in one Tripoli district and the town of Zlitan further east. The Union for the Homeland led by a long-time Gaddafi opponent was ahead in Misrata, Libya's third city.

However it could be premature to say a good Jibril showing in itself breaks with a trend towards Islamic parties gaining power in Arab Spring countries including Egypt and Tunisia.

The Western-educated Jibril rejects the labels of secular and liberal and says sharia (Islamic law) is one of the principles of the alliance. On Sunday he offered to form a grand coalition with all political forces in Libya.

Parties have only been allotted 80 out of 200 seats in an assembly whose job will be to name a prime minister and cabinet before readying parliamentary elections in 2013 on the basis of a yet-to-be-drafted constitution. The remaining 120 seats will go to independent candidates.

"We have no way of knowing yet how they will align themselves," said Hanan Salah of campaign group Human Rights Watch.


Reaction to Jibril's coalition call was cautiously positive.

"The door is open to dialogue now for all Libyans," Ali Rhouma El-Sibai, head of the hardline Islamic Al-Assala Group, told Reuters. "But no agreement is possible until we know what is on the table. We cannot compromise our principles."

No comment was available from the Justice and Construction Party, the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood. Al-Watan, a group led by former rebel militia leader Abdel Hakim Belhadj, said it was studying the call.

In Benghazi, moderate independent candidate Younis Fanoush welcomed the idea of a coalition. "It is the right time for it - it is not beyond the realm of possibility," he told Reuters.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon hailed the "peaceful, democratic spirit" of the vote and U.S. President Barack Obama said he looked forward to working with a new Libyan leadership.

However the storming of four voting centres by protesters in Benghazi underlined that eastern demands ranging from greater political representation for the region to regional autonomy will not go away.

Gunmen, demonstrating their grip on the eastern oil terminals from which the bulk of Libya's oil exports flow, blocked three main ports a day before the vote.

The National Oil Corporation confirmed on Sunday that activities were back to normal after a 48-hour stoppage.

Many easterners are furious that their region, one of three in Libya, was only allotted 60 seats in the new assembly compared to 102 for the western region that includes Tripoli.

(Addtional reporting by Hadeel Al-Shalchi in Benghazi and Mark John in Tripoli; Writing by Mark John; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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