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Libya's parliament swears in Islamist-backed businessman as prime minister after disputed vote

TRIPOLI, Libya - Libya's parliament swore in an Islamist-backed businessman as the country's new interim prime minister Sunday after a disputed vote and a walkout by secular lawmakers, the latest political turmoil in a country where powerful militias hold sway years after its civil war.

Despite the protest, the interim parliament named 42-year-old businessman Ahmed Matiq as prime minister in a rushed televised session headed by the second deputy of parliament, Saleh al-Makhzoum, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood's Justice and Construction Party. But with lawmakers promising to challenge the decision, it remains unclear who will be prime minister in Libya, which is still plagued by insecurity following the ouster and the killing of longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi in an eight-month civil war.

"I swear I will carry out my duties honestly and in devotion," Matiq, who runs a group of hotels and is involved in construction, told parliament as several seats appeared empty. After lawmakers rose to chant a national anthem, the British-educated Matiq sang along, closing his eyes in concentration. "Thank you for your confidence," he later said.

Al-Makhzoum asked Matiq to form the new government within two weeks or less.

"The country can't bear any more delays," al-Makhzoum said. "We need a government to handle the budget."

The government initially issued a statement which appeared to settle the conflict in favour of Matiq.

"The government will abide by the constitutional rules. It will implement all the decisions it receives from the parliament," government spokesman Ahmed al-Amin said.

But later, parliament's first deputy, Ezzeddin al-Awami, sent a letter to the outgoing government asking interim Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni to remain on the job. In the letter, al-Awami called Matiq's election and swearing in "null" and said it should not be "acknowledged."

Initially, only 113 lawmakers voted for Matiq, falling short of the 120 votes necessary to secure his win. After a stormy session and disagreements among the lawmakers, the session was adjourned. But Libyan TV station Al-Ahrar reported that voting resumed and Matiq, from Libya's third-largest city, Misrata, secured eight new votes. Opponents charged that some of the secured votes came from lawmakers who were not there.

Al-Sharif al-Wafi, an independent lawmaker from Benghazi, said the swearing-in was unconstitutional and defied democratic principles. He said the second deputy of parliament illegally continued the session after al-Awami had adjourned it.

"Authority in Libya has been seized," al-Wafi told a news conference in the capital, Tripoli.

Lawmaker Fatma al-Majbari told Al-Ahrar that she will contest the decision.

"There are violations in today's session," al-Majbari said.

But Mahmoud Salama al-Ghiryani, a lawmaker and supporter of Matiq, said session's adjournment was illegal and that most of the members in the house were against it.

"It was legitimate to continue the voting," he said.

Omar al-Hassi, a political science professor from the country's second-largest city of Benghazi, ran against Matiq. He is backed by the hard-line Islamist bloc in parliament.

The vote had already been postponed last week after a shooting broke out outside the main entrance of the parliament after a third candidate, supported by seculars, was knocked out of the running.

Interim Prime Minister al-Thinni had declined last month to form a new government, amid intensified divisions and rising unrest in the oil-rich country. At the time, al-Thinni said his decision was prompted by a recent attack against him that, in his words, endangered the lives of residents of his neighbourhood.

The earlier Western-backed prime minister, Ali Zidan, was pushed out of office in March in a no-confidence vote following a standoff between the central government and powerful militias, and a power struggle between Islamists and non-Islamist factions.

Al-Wafi said he and other lawmakers will appeal to al-Thinni to stay in power.

"We want Libyans to know that power was usurped," he said.

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