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Troops on Guard As Lebanon Votes

May 24, 1998

DEIR EL-KAMAR, Lebanon (AP) _ Christian opposition politicians attempted a comeback and rival Shiite Muslim factions vied for supremacy Sunday in the first municipal elections in Lebanon in 35 years.

The army deployed 10,000 troops as voters from Deir el-Kamar, Mount Lebanon’s historic capital, to the slums of south Beirut cast ballots during 10 hours of balloting in Lebanon’s central province.

Polls in Mount Lebanon, the nation’s most populous region, closed at 5 p.m. and unofficial estimates put the turnout figure at 75 percent of the 650,000 people eligible to vote.

The election marked the first in which major right-wing Christian groups took part since the 1975-90 civil war. It was also a showdown between the main Amal and Hezbollah factions of the 1.2-million Shiite community, the nation’s largest sect.

Sunday’s voting took place only in Mount Lebanon, where about 900 municipal seats are being contested.

Staggered voting will be held in other parts of Lebanon, a nation of 3.2 million people, on the following three Sundays. No election will be held in an Israeli-occupied zone in the south.

For Christians, who have boycotted parliamentary elections in 1992 and 1996 to protest the Syrian dominance of Lebanon, taking part was an opportunity to restore some of their lost influence.

Some Christians displaced by fighting ventured to their hometowns Sunday to vote.

``We want a homogeneous municipality to help in the development of Damour and the return of its displaced people,″ said Antoine Akel, who was driven out of his native town on the coast south of Beirut in 1975.

In Shiite suburbs south of Beirut, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri’s pro-Syrian Amal was pitted against Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed group fighting Israel in southern Lebanon.

Soldiers patrolled roads and helped police guard the 1,700 polling stations scattered from cities along the Mediterranean coast to hamlets in the green central mountains.

Tanks and armored vehicles were posted at major intersections and authorities banned carrying weapons in the province where Christian and Muslim communities fought bitterly during the civil war.

Fistfights between supporters of rival candidates led to 14 arrests across the province, security officials reported. The balloting was otherwise peaceful.

Among the 10,000 posts at stake nationwide are mayors, city and town council members and mukhtars, or village chiefs.

The elections will not affect the government of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. It also will not upset the delicate Christian-Muslim share of public jobs under Lebanon’s sectarian-based political system.

Differences over representation helped contribute to the outbreak of civil war.

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