Libyans Head to Polls to Elect Transitional Parliament Amid Unrest in Eastern Cities

Some 2,500 candidates vie for 200 National Congress seats; activists plan to boycott polls and host anti-government protests in Benghazi against the unfair distribution of seats.

Voters headerd to the polls across Libya on Saturday to elect a 200-seat National Congress, which will have legislative powers and appoint a new government, amid fears of violence and calls for boycott in eastern cities.

Around 2.7 million Libyans have registered to vote to elect the assembly, consisting of 120 directly elected members and 80 for contenders from party lists.

Some 2,500 candidates are vying for the directly elected seats, while there are 1,202 names on the party lists. There are more than 6,600 polling stations across 13 cities, according to the election commission.

Saturday's vote for a 200-member transitional parliament caps a tumultuous nine-month transition toward democracy for the country after a bitter civil war that ended with the capture and killing of ousted dictator Muammar Gadhafi in October. Many Libyans had hoped the oil-rich nation of 6 million would quickly thrive and become a magnet for investment, but the country has suffered a virtual collapse in authority that has left formidable challenges. Armed militias still operate independently, and deepening regional and tribal divisions erupt into violence with alarming frequency.

In the eastern city of Benghazi, some said they were planning to boycott the polls and hold anti-government protests on Saturday against the unfair distribution of seats.

The western region, including Tripoli, has been allocated 106 seats. The eastern region, including the second city Benghazi, has 60 seats. The remaining will go to thinly populated southern Libya.

On the eve of Saturday's vote, gunmen shot down a helicopter carrying polling materials near the eastern city of Benghazi, the birthplace of the revolution, killing one election worker, said Saleh Darhoub, a spokesman for the ruling National Transitional Council. The crew survived after a crash landing.

In the eastern city of Benghazi, cradle of last year's uprising and now seeking more autonomy from the interim government, protesters stormed polling stations and burned hundreds of ballot papers while voting was underway across the country on Saturday.

Federalists in eastern Libya have been calling for autonomy, a demand which has been rejected by the interim ruling National Transitional Council and most political parties.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon hailed the election as a "milestone in Libya's long march toward democracy."

The government has declared Saturday and Sunday a public holiday to encourage people to vote.

Polls were scheduled to close at 8:00 P.M. No date was set for the publishing of results.