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Libyans vote in 1st post-Qaddafi election

Last Updated 4:22 p.m. ET

(AP) TRIPOLI, Libya - Jubilant Libyans chose a new parliament Saturday in their first nationwide vote in decades, but violence and protests in the restive east underscored the challenges ahead as the oil-rich North African nation struggles to restore stability after the ouster of longtime dictator Muammar Qaddafi.

One person was killed and two wounded in a gunbattle between security forces and anti-election protesters in the eastern city of Ajdabiya, according to the head of the election commission. Nouri al-Abari said the polling center targeted by the protesters was later reopened and voting commenced normally.

The shooting followed a spate of attacks on polling centers in the eastern half of the country, which was the cradle of the revolution against Qaddafi but has become increasingly angry over the perceived domination of power by rivals in Tripoli.

The vote capped a chaotic transition that has exposed major fault lines ranging from the east-west divide to 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."

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The election for a 200-seat parliament, which will be tasked with forming a new government, was a key milestone after a bitter civil war that ended Qaddafi's four-decade rule. It was the first time Libyans have voted for a parliament since 1964, five years before Qaddafi's military coup that toppled the monarchy.

But the desert nation of 6 million people has fallen into turmoil since Qaddafi 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 and the inability to rein in unruly militias have threatened to tear the country apart.

Some easterners boycotted the election and protesters torched ballot boxes in 14 out of 19 polling centers in 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 Qaddafi'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 Qaddafi 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 backed by NATO airstrikes battled Libyan regime forces for months.