Lebanese vote despite Christians' boycott

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The Independent Online
BAALBEK (Reuter) - Lebanon held its first general election in 20 years yesterday, despite a boycott and strike by minority Christians who accused Syria of using the vote to tighten its grip on the country. A soldier and and an armed civilian died in a shootout in the eastern town of Majdal Anjar.

Polling was confined to the north and east of the country. Muslim voters in Tripoli cast their ballots in a peaceful atmosphere. But in the Christian town of Zahle and in the eastern Baalbek area there were scuffles and accusations of cheating. Voting takes place in Beirut next Sunday.

Lebanon's Syrian-backed President, Elias Hrawi, was among the first to vote in the Christian town of Zahle. 'I call on all Lebanese to participate in these elections . . . because their unity is the only guarantee for Lebanon's survival,' he said.

The general election, the first since 1972, has touched off a serious Christian-Muslim crisis. Thousands of troops imposed tight security as polling stations opened for voters to choose 51 MPs from 265 candidates. A total of 800,000 people were eligible to vote for 51 designated Christian and Muslim seats.

In the eastern Baalbek area the pro-Iranian Hizbollah (Party of God), which fielded candidates for the first time since its formation in 1982, and supporters of the Shia Muslim House Speaker, Hussein Husseini, accused one another of vote-rigging.

In the northern village of Bicharri, graffiti condemned the elections. 'These elections were cooked and canned in Syria,' said Jibran Rahmeh, a Christian.