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High turnout in crucial Lebanon elections

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Lebanese queue to cast their ballots

People in Lebanon have turned out in large numbers to vote in an election pitting the ruling Western-backed coalition against a Hezbollah-led bloc.

A tight race is predicted between the US-backed 14 March alliance, which has a small majority in parliament, and its rivals, supported by Syria and Iran.

Polls closed at 1900 local time (1600 GMT). Early results are expected within hours and official results on Monday.

Initial estimates put turnout at more than 52%, a high figure for Lebanon.

Interior Minister Ziad Baroud said turnout had exceeded that of the 2005 election and was "unheard of in the history of Lebanese elections".

Some three million people were eligible to cast ballots.

About 50,000 security personnel were deployed to prevent violence - although no major incidents were reported.

'Blessing' of democracy

Former US President Jimmy Carter, who heads a team of international observers, said Lebanese parties - and their foreign backers - should accept the result of the vote.

LEBANON ELECTIONS KEY FACTS
128-seat, divided along sectarian and communal lines - 64 for Muslims and 64 for Christians
MPs elected for four-year terms
Voting age 21 years
Main factions
- 14 March Coalition: Future movement; Progressive Socialist Party; Christian Lebanese Forces; Christian Phalangist party.
- 8 March Coalition: Hezbollah; Amal movement headed by the parliamentary Speaker Nabih Birri; Free Patriotic Movement of Gen Michel Aoun.

"I don't have any concerns over the conduct of the elections. I have concerns over the acceptance of the results by all the major parties," Mr Carter said at a polling station in Beirut.

"We also hope that the United States and Iran and Saudi Arabia and other countries will also accept the results of the election and not try to interfere in the process," he added.

Lines of cars, some waving flags of various political parties, were on the move from the early hours as voters turned out in numbers to cast their ballots.

Many polling stations were besieged by long lines of people, especially in Christian areas, reports the BBC's Jim Muir in the capital, Beirut.

"I voted for the first time in my life today simply because these elections will decide in which direction the country will go," Elie Yacoub told the AP news agency after casting his ballot in Beirut.

"I voted for reform and change," said Laure Khoury, 32, a schoolteacher, after voting for Hezbollah's Christian allies. "We tried the others for four years and we got nothing but promises and corruption. Enough is enough."

Joseph, a Christian, said he was voting for the governing majority "to safeguard our freedoms".

Voting in his home town in the district of Jbeil, north of Beirut, President Michel Suleiman urged people to turn out to vote - "an important act that should be done calmly and with joy so that afterwards we can start to build Lebanon".

"Democracy is a blessing that we must preserve, a blessing that distinguishes Lebanon in the Middle East," Mr Suleiman said.

The leader of the current parliamentary majority, Saad Hariri, hailed a "great day for democracy, a great day for Lebanon" as he cast his ballot in Beirut.

Christian vote

Under Lebanon's power-sharing political system, seats in the 128-member parliament are split equally between Christians and Muslims, with further sub-divisions for various sects.

BBC correspondent Jim Muir
Jim Muir reporting from Beirut

Lebanon is very vulnerable to regional and international currents, but a detente appears to be going on.

Saudi Arabia and Syria, which have been at odds over recent years, are talking to one another.

US President Barack Obama is trying to talk to Syria and Iran.

So the feeling is that these acute, international and local tensions that are reflected so strongly here are easing off.

There is a general feeling that the Lebanese want to get on, that they want to keep their country going despite their political differences.

Analysts say the result could depend on which Christian politicians are elected in a few key constituencies.

The Christian vote is said to be split evenly between the two camps.

Hezbollah is fielding only 11 candidates, though it is a powerful member of the broader opposition coalition, which includes the maverick Christian leader Michel Aoun, and the mainstream Shia movement Amal.

Hezbollah has promised that its bloc will invite its opponents to form a national unity government if it wins. Analysts say the proposal shows the bloc's concern about a possible international backlash if it tries to govern alone.

US officials have said they will review US aid to Lebanon if the Hezbollah-led alliance wins.

The current majority in parliament was swept to power in 2005, following the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in a car bombing in Beirut.

The bombing forced Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon after a 29-year presence amid accusations of Syrian involvement in the attack.

The government in Damascus has strongly denied the claims.



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