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Count under way in Libya vote clouded by deadly attacks

Vote counting was underway after a Libyan general election marred by the murder of a leading women's rights activist and poor turnout yet applauded by Barack Obama as a democratic milestone.

TRIPOLI: Vote counting was underway on Thursday after a Libyan general election marred by the murder of a leading women's rights activist and poor turnout yet applauded by Barack Obama as a democratic milestone.

The first results were expected as early as late Thursday from an election the authorities hope will pave a way out of the turmoil that has gripped the country since the 2011 ouster of dictator Moamer Gadhafi.

Masked men broke into the home of liberal activist Salwa Bugaighis in Benghazi, an Islamist bastion, just hours after polls closed Wednesday evening in an attack that drew international condemnation.

"Mrs Bugaighis was stabbed in several parts of her body but the cause of death was a bullet wound to the head," said a spokesman for the Benghazi Medical Centre.

US Ambassador Deborah Jones called the killing "heartbreaking" on Twitter, denouncing "a cowardly, despicable, shameful act against a courageous woman and true Libyan patriot."

British Ambassador Michael Aron echoed the condemnation of the killing of Bugaighis, a lawyer and a feminist who served on the National Transitional Council, the political wing of the rebellion.

"Devastated about horrific murder of Salwa Bugaighis. Leading light of # 17FebRevolution & human rights champion. Sad day for # Libya," he tweeted.

The murder was also condemned by United Nations (UN) chief Ban Ki-moon and by Amnesty International, which called for a swift investigation.

Seven soldiers who had been deployed to provide polling day security in Benghazi were also killed, and 53 wounded, in what security officials said was an attack on their convoy by Islamist militia.

Benghazi was the birthplace of the NATO-backed uprising that toppled and killed Gadhafi. It has become a stronghold of Islamist militia, and was the scene of a deadly 2012 attack by jihadists on the US consulate.

Tensions have been raised further by an armed campaign launched by a rogue former general last month to rid the eastern city of Islamists, which has drawn many regular army units to his side.

There was polling day violence in western Libya too, with gunmen seizing ballot boxes from five polling stations in Al-Jemil, forcing voting in the town to be abandoned.

There was no election either in the eastern city of Derna - a jihadist stronghold - or in swathes of the southern Kufra region.

Polling for the 16 of the 200 seats in parliament that those areas provide will be reorganised a later date, the electoral commission said.

Just 42 per cent of the 1.5 million registered voters turned out on Wednesday, according to the commission's preliminary estimates.

The number of registered voters was itself a far cry from the more than 2.7 million who signed up two years ago for Libya's first ever free election.

Despite the poor turnout and the violence, US President Obama congratulated Libyans on "a milestone in their courageous efforts to transition from four decades of dictatorship toward a full democracy."

While calling on all Libyans to renounce violence, he said in a statement that the "new government must now focus on building consensus to address the challenges of establishing security, providing effective public services, and ensuring an inclusive political process."

The spokesman of the UN chief echoed that, saying the "election marks an important step in moving the transition process forward and stabilising the political process."

The election was also welcomed by British Foreign Office Minister Hugh Robertson, who called it a "welcome result of the 2011 revolution."

In the past few weeks, Libya has been rocked by a crisis that sees two rival cabinets jostling for power in a crippling showdown between Islamists and liberals, as violence rages in the east.

The heavily armed rebels who ousted and killed Gadhafi 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 the free July 2012 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 the 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 call Wednesday's election.

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