A deadly attack on troops and low turnout Wednesday marred Libya's general election on which hopes were pinned of ending three years of turmoil since dictator Moamer Kadhafi's ouster.
At least three soldiers deployed to provide polling day security in second city Benghazi were killed in what security officials said was an attack on their convoy by Islamist militia.
The eastern city, which was the scene of a deadly 2012 attack on the US consulate, has been tense since a rogue former rebel commander launched an offensive against powerful Islamist groups late last month, drawing many regular army units to his side.
The electoral commission was also forced to close 18 polling stations in the western town of Al-Jemil after unidentified gunmen attacked five of them and stole ballot boxes, a local security official said.
Half an hour before polls closed at 1800 GMT, just 400,000 of the 1.5 million registered voters had cast their ballot, a turnout of less than 27 percent, the electoral commission said.
The number of registered voters itself was a far cry from the more than 2.7 million who signed up two years ago for Libya’s first ever free election. Almost 3.5 million Libyans are eligible to vote.
In the past few weeks, Libya has been rocked by a crisis that saw two rival cabinets jostling for power amid a crippling showdown between Islamists and liberals, as violence raged in the east.
A patchwork of militias, including Islamic extremists, who helped overthrow Kadhafi in the 2011 NATO-backed uprising have been blamed for violence that has continued unabated since then.
“These are the last chance elections. We are placing much hope in the future parliament to restore the security and stability of our country,” said Amr Baiou, 32, as he emerged from a polling station in Tripoli.
No voting was held in the eastern town of Derna, a stronghold of jihadists, for fear of attacks on polling stations.
In the south, just five out 15 polling stations opened in the Kufra region for “security reasons,” the electoral commission said.
– ‘Proceeding normally’ –
Interim prime minister Abdullah al-Thani said the election was “proceeding normally.”
“Regarding the organisation of voting in Derna, there will be measures to take this week,” he added without elaborating.
The heavily armed rebels who ousted and killed Kadhafi have carved out their own fiefdoms in the deeply tribal country, some even seizing oil terminals and crippling crude exports from a sector key to government revenues.
The General National Congress (GNC), or parliament, which has served as Libya’s highest political authority since the revolt, was elected in July 2012, in the country’s first ever free polls.
But it has been mired in controversy and accused of hogging power, with successive governments complaining its role as both executive and legislative authority has tied their hands in taming militias.
The crisis came to a head in February when the assembly, whose term had been due to expire, decided to prolong its mandate until December.
That sparked street protests and forced lawmakers to announce the election.
Voters were choosing from among 1,628 candidates, with 32 seats in the 200-strong GNC reserved for women and would-be MPs banned from belonging to any political party.
The first results are expected on Friday or Saturday.
The UN Security Council has expressed hopes that the vote can be a stepping stone out of the chaos.
“These elections are an important step in Libya’s transition towards stable democratic governance,” it said this week.
For analyst Salem Soltan, none of the candidates standing in the elections “carry the political or social weight” needed in the assembly.
The new parliament risks “being run by shadow MPs, who will act according to instructions from warlords and militias,” he said.
But some of those taking part in Wednesday’s poll disagreed.
“We are voting so as not to repeat the mistakes of the past,” said Salah al-Thabet.
“We voted in the first elections just to vote. This time I have really researched the candidates, and I voted for the right people,” added the 62-year-old pensioner, after casting his ballot in central Tripoli.