Libyan voters head to the polls in Benghazi local elections

Libyans wait outside a polling station in the local council elections in Benghazi May 19, 2012. This was the first time a local council election has been held in Benghazi since the 1960s

Residents in Benghazi, the city where the Libyan uprising began, have voted in historic local elections.

More than 400 people contested seats on the 44-member local council, even though the remit of local authorities has yet to be set.

This was the first time such elections have been held in the city since the 1960s and turnout was high.

National elections are expected to be held in June. Until then, the mandate of local councils will remain unclear.

The BBC's Rana Jawad in Libya says people in Benghazi were excited and motivated to be taking part in a political process.

Social networking sites were awash with pictures of people showing their inked fingers to prove they voted and some polling stations had to stay open for an extra hour to meet demand.

Results of the election are due on Monday.

'We feel valued'

One voter, 22 year-old law student Bilal Bettamer, said there were more women than men voting in his area.

"I personally voted for a woman but there are only two female candidates," he added.

Teaching assistant Ahmed al-Meina, 26, said: "This is the first democratic experience for us in Benghazi... it feels like we are now valued, all my friends voted."

He noted however that the council's mandate is unclear, even to the candidates themselves. Until the national assembly sets a budget, no one will know how much money or influence local authorities will wield.

Al-Ameen Belhaj, an official in the National Transitional Council (NTC), said councils will be running things like transport and communications, "but we have not yet differentiated between the mandate of these councils and the national assembly that is due to be elected in June".

"We might see new elections for local councils after the constituent assembly is formed," he added.

Security concerns

Tensions between regional powers in the east of Libya, where the revolution began, and the NTC in Tripoli in the west have been bubbling since the fall of Col Gaddafi last year.

Eastern cities like Benghazi felt marginalised under the old regime and are wary of the same thing happening again, so many residents are reluctant to cede too much power to the government in the capital.

In March, tribal leaders and militia commanders in eastern Libya tried to set up a semi-autonomous region called Barqa. They have called on their supporters to boycott the national elections next month.

Bilal Bettamer, an ex-fighter and law student who voted in Benghazi, said the most important thing for him was to disarm the militias and strengthen the official police and army.

"A lot of the ex-fighters want to give up their weapons but they don't see any real authority to hand them to," he said.

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