Hezbollah, the armed Shiite Muslim movement, and its allies claimed a massive victory in southern Lebanon in the second stage of national elections Sunday, a vote the group says it hopes will prove its strength and send a message of defiance to the United States.
Four hours after polling stations closed, Hezbollah's deputy leader, Sheik Naim Kassem, and an ally, Nabih Berri of the Shiite Amal movement, said they had won all 23 seats in this region bordering Israel.
Kassem said that in one constituency, with more than half the votes counted, a Hezbollah official, Mohammed Raad, was leading with 69,207 votes against his closest rival, Elias Abu Rizk, with 7,000 votes. In another area, with more than a third of votes counted, Berri was leading with 35,560 while his closest opponent, Riad Asaad, had 5,304 votes, Kassem said.
The elections, divided by region and spread over four consecutive Sundays, began last week in Beirut, the capital, where the dominant issue was the February assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri. His killing triggered massive street protests and international outrage that forced Syria to pull its army out of Lebanon, ending nearly three decades of military domination.
"All the south came out today to send a clear message to the Americans that they embrace the resistance weapons and that they are independent in their decision and they are not subservient to international resolutions," Sheik Nabil Kaouk, Hezbollah's commander in southern Lebanon, told reporters shortly after voting began.
The United States, which labels Hezbollah a terrorist organization, wants the guerrilla group to abandon its weapons in line with last year's U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559. Hezbollah has refused to disarm, a position backed by Lebanese authorities.
Voter turnout was noticeably heavier in Shiite areas than in Christian and Sunni Muslim districts, according to preliminary estimates by campaign officials and local television stations. Amal and Hezbollah campaigners estimated voter turnout at about 45 percent.
One reason for the lack of interest by some of the 665,000 eligible voters is that six of the 23 seats were largely uncontested.
In last Sunday's polls in Beirut, anti-Syrian opposition candidates took most of the capital's 19 parliamentary seats. But the vote in the predominantly Shiite south is centered on Hezbollah and its weapons.
Hezbollah, backed by Syria and Iran, is fielding 14 candidates across Lebanon, hoping to build on the nine seats it already holds in the 128-member legislature. It has already won a seat in Beirut.
While the balloting in southern Lebanon was peaceful, the first major violence of the elections broke out in central Lebanon, where Druze supporters of opposition leader Walid Jumblatt and rival Talal Arsalan clashed. Seven people were wounded in the gunfire in the mountain resort of Sofar before troops intervened and separated the two sides, the official National News Agency reported. The region votes next Sunday.