Libya's second city has gone to the polls in a local election that will test support for a proposal to set up autonomous rule for eastern Libya.
More than 400 people were running for the 41 seats up for grabs on Saturday for the local council of Benghazi.
Benghazi was the cradle of last year's revolt which overthrew Muammar Gaddafi but it is also the home of a movement which, frustrated with the new national rulers, wants to turn Libya into a federal state with autonomous provinces.
The vote for the city council was the first in Benghazi since the 1960s, and some of the voting centres on Saturday were so crowded that they stayed open an extra hour to meet the rush of voters.
Supporters of autonomy for Cyrenaica, the eastern province that includes Benghazi, were also running in the election.
The self-styled Cyrenaica Congress has called for a boycott of Libya's first national election, scheduled for June 19, saying it will not give fair representation to the east but did not call for a boycott for Saturday's elections.
"The federalists ... have problems with centralisation and the national assembly," said Mahdi al-Bahloul, an official with the commission which organised the vote.
"They realise that the elections today are for the benefit of all of Benghazi."
If candidates who back autonomy perform well in the elections, however, it could show how well the autonomy movement will do in June's vote for a national assembly.
The drive for Cyrenaica autonomy has alarmed Libya's ruling National Transitional Council (NTC) which says it could lead to the break-up of the country.
Since Gaddafi's ouster, the new government in Tripoli has struggled to impose its authority throughout the country or earn the wider trust of the people, especially in the east.
It has also unsettled oil markets, because the bulk of the oil fields in Libya are in the east.
Libya's third-largest city of Misrata voted for a local council in February, while a handful of smaller cities have as well.
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|William T. Hathaway|