Hezbollah, allies declare clean sweep in elections

Monday, June 6, 2005

BINT JBEIL, Lebanon -- Hezbollah and its Shiite allies claimed victory in southern Lebanon in Sunday's second stage of national elections, a vote the militant group hopes will prove its strength and send a message of defiance to the United States. Hundreds of Hezbollah supporters drove through the streets of Beirut waving the group's yellow flag in celebration. In Beirut's predominantly Shiite southern suburbs, fireworks lit the sky. Four hours after polling stations closed, Hezbollah and its ally the Shiite Muslim Amal movement claimed they had won all 23 seats in the region bordering Israel.

Official results were not due before midday Monday.

"It has become clear that all members of the Resistance, Liberation and Development Ticket have won in (southern Lebanon's) two regions," said Sheik Naim Kassem, Hezbollah's deputy leader. "The south has declared through this vote its clear stance in supporting this track."

The elections, which are scheduled for two more Sundays in other regions, follow the assassination last week of an anti-Syrian journalist and continuing calls by the opposition for President Emile Lahoud's resignation. The anti-Syrian opposition hopes the elections will end Damascus' control of the legislature.

The United States, which labels Hezbollah a terrorist organization, wants the guerrilla group to abandon its weapons in line with last year's U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559. Hezbollah has refused to disarm, a position backed by Lebanese authorities.

Voter turnout was heavy in Shiite areas and lower in Christian and Sunni Muslim districts, according to preliminary estimates by candidates' campaigns and local television stations. Amal and Hezbollah campaigners estimated turnout at about 45 percent.

One reason for the lack of interest by some of the 665,000 eligible voters is that six of the 23 seats were uncontested.

Those citizens who did vote expressed strong support for Hezbollah, the guerrilla group that fought Israel during an 18-year occupation. Israel occupied south Lebanon from 1982-2000.

"We should show our support for the resistance and those who were martyred for the sake of liberating this country," a smiling Kamel Hamka, 77, said as he walked out of a polling station in Bint Jbeil, a Shiite town a few miles from the Israeli border.

Outside a polling station in the town's center, veiled young women Hezbollah activists distributed candidate lists and cars blared guerrilla songs and speeches from loudspeakers to encourage voters.

"The people's participation in the elections is a vote for the resistance and its weapons," said Hassan Fadlallah, a Hezbollah candidate allied with Amal.

Hezbollah hopes strong voter support will give it greater political influence to confront international pressure to disarm now that its Syrian backers have withdrawn from the country.

"All the south came out today to send a clear message to the Americans that they embrace the resistance (Hezbollah's) weapons and that they are independent in their decision and they are not subservient to international resolutions," Sheik Nabil Kaouk, Hezbollah's commander in southern Lebanon, told reporters shortly after voting began in Sunday's second phase of four-stage parliamentary elections.

In last Sunday's polls in Beirut, anti-Syrian opposition candidates took most of the capital's 19 parliamentary seats.

But the vote in the predominantly Shiite south is centered on Hezbollah and its weapons.

Hezbollah, backed by both Syria and Iran, is fielding 14 candidates across Lebanon, hoping to build on the nine seats it already holds in the 128-member legislature. It has already won a seat in Beirut.

Kassem said that in one constituency, with more than half the votes counted, Hezbollah official Mohammed Raad was leading with 69,207 votes against his closest rival, Elias Abu Rizk, with 7,000 votes. In another, with more than third of votes counted, Nabih Berri of Amal was leading with 35,560 while his closest opponent, Riad Asaad had 5,304 votes, Kassem said.

While the balloting in southern Lebanon was peaceful, the first major violence of the elections broke out in central Lebanon, where Druse supporters of opposition leader Walid Jumblatt and rival Talal Arsalan clashed. Seven people were wounded in the gunfire in the mountain resort of Sofar before troops intervened and separated the two sides, the official National News Agency reported. The region votes next Sunday.

The Lebanese army said it had detained 20 people involved in the clashes in Sofar.

In the south, Lebanese security officials said a Katyusha rocket set to be fired on Israel from a border area was dismantled late Saturday before it was launched.

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