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Hezbollah claims election win in Lebanon

By DALAL SAOUD

BEIRUT, Lebanon -- The pro-Iranian Hezbollah claimed a surprise victory Monday in the initial phase of Lebanon's first general elections since 1972, prompting Parliament Speaker Hussein Husseini to accuse it of fraud and to resign.

Husseini, the apparent loser among a list of 10 candidates who ran against Hezbollah in Sunday's vote in Baalbeck, cited reports from his own backers and jornalists that Hezbollah gunmen seized collection boxes from polling stations and inserted their own ballots.

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At midday, he announced his resignation from Parliament's presidency, admitting his defeat by Hezbollah.

'I have come to realize that one can become an obstacle to achieving what onewants,' Husseini told reporters at his residence in Beirut. 'One has to know his limits.'

Meanwhile, in the ancient city of Baalbeck, 52 miles east of Beirut, Hezbollah gunmen fired shots in the air in jubilitation for the apparent success of their candidates.

Women clad in black chadors served sweets to pedestrians in Baalbeck's streets and showered young Hezbollahis with rice and flowers.

Children and young women danced and cheered Hezbollah candidates, raising their pictures as well as black flags.

But to Samia Tabet, a 23-year-old Christian women, the Hezbollah success was a threat.

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'If it happens that they gain the upper hand in the Government, I will leave the country,' she said.

Albert Mansour, a former Information Minister who ran for the Christian seat in Husseini's list, denounced Sunday's elections and Hezbollah's practices.

In the nearby city of Zahle, hometown of President Elias Hrawi, final results showed the defeat of all candidates supported by the President including his son, Roy Hrawi, and his right-hand man and Minister of Transportation Shawki Fakhoury.

Fakhoury referred his defeat to 'competitors spending more than $5 million to buy the greatest number of votes in a very scandalous way.'

'They paid $200 for each person, bribed a great number of government employees and confiscated ballot tickets,' said Fakhoury.

Official results indicated the success of the list led by Interior Minister Sami Khatib in southwestern Bekaa Valley.

In northern Lebanon, lists led by the former Prime Minister Omar Karami and Christian Maronite Housing Minister Suleiman Franjiyeh were among the winners, according to initial reports.

Husseini urged Prime Minister Rashid Solh to convene an emergency Cabinet meeting to cancel the elections in the ancient city of Baalbeck and the Hermel district, in Syrian-patrolled eastern Lebanon, because 'of massive rigging.'

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In a statement released at dawn, Husseini also threatened to call a special session of Parliament on Tuesday and 'take the appropriate decision' if the government fails to stop the elections.

Hezbollah candidate Sheikh Khodr Tlais denied reports that his followers besieged Baalbeck's polling stations but admitted few incidents took place in the area during Sunday's elections.

'What is certain is that there is a large difference between our list and that of Husseini,' Tlais said. 'Victory is on our side.'

Husseini had contacted Interior Minister Sami Khatib on Sunday night and asked him to stop vote counting because of what he described as 'forging results and presence of gunmen in ballot stations.'

Husseini's representatives at the vote counting stations said they left their posts because of the 'lack of any conditions that might secure the safety of the electoral process.'

Their withdrawal came amid clear signs Husseini's slate was losing to four Hezbollah candidates and three of their Christian and Sunni Muslim running mates.

Husseini, a Muslim Shiite, is credited with masterminding the Lebanese peace accord reached in October 1989 in Taif, Saudi Arabia, that helped end 16 years of civil war.

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Hezbollah said its preliminary results showed its former secretary- general, Seyyed Ibrahim Al Amin, and his seven other partners already had won between 15,000 and 23,000 votes in the Baalbeck and Hermel contituencies.

The fundamentalist party said Husseini so far had received slightly more than 10,000 votes.

Official results for all 51 seats up for grabs Sunday were expected to be announced late Monday, although initial counts also showed President Elias Hrawi's son, Roy Hrawi, had lost his bid for the Christian seat in Zahleh.

Husseini called the alleged fraud a 'pre-mediated conspiracy to rig the poll, divide the Shiites or even the whole Lebanese people.' He did not eleborate.

He said ballot boxes were opened while being transferred to the main vote counting station and said some envelopes were not even sealed, meaning 'anyone could have slipped more ballots into the boxes.'

Reporters in the area said gunmen entered one polling station, opened ballot boxes and placed ballots of their own inside.

The only foreigners allowed to observe the Lebanese elections were journalists. Some 1,200 reporters, including 175 foreigners, were accredited for the vote, the Information Ministry said.

Khatib said there was no reason to suspend the vote count but promised to investigate Husseini's objections.

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The first phase of the elections took place in eastern and southern Lebanon amid reports of general chaos, electoral misorganization and falsifications of voter lists.

Husseini's objections boosted the stand of Christian opposition groups that called for a postponment of the elections until their freedom could be better guaranteed. Christian leaders specifically contended the continued Syrian military presence in and around Beirut would skew the results and produce an overwhelming majority of pro- Syrian members in the new legislative body.

The official Iranian news agency IRNA, in its report Monday on the Lebanese elections, cited two Tehran newspaper editorials calling on the Beirut leadership to accept the 'sovereignty of the people.'

'Developments in Lebanon's political stage and changing of its population format warrant changes in the division of powers of the Lebanese government,' the Persian daily Abrar said in commentary carried by IRNA.

The initial phase of Lebanon's first general elections since 1972 concluded in the southern and eastern regions despite an overwhelming Christian boycott.

Thousands of people flocked to the polling posts to cast their ballots while Lebanese Army troops, police and Syrian troops maintained tight security.

In the ancient city of Baalbeck, 52 miles east of Beirut, security officials affirmed there were no reports of violent incidents and said voters were casting ballots in a free and peaceful atmosphere.

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But Albert Mansour, a Christian deputy and former Minister of Information, criticized the government's poll administration as badly organized.

'We are in a jungle of chaos and mismanagement,' Mansour said, referring to the presence of gunmen at a station poll in Baalbeck.

In Beirut's Christian neighborhoods, cars tied black ribbons to their car radio antennas in a sign of mourning for the 'slaughtering of democracy in the country,' according to the Voice of Free Lebanon, a radio station run by the hard-line Lebanese Forces militia.

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