LIBYA's liberal coalition claimed an early lead yesterday in vote counting after the country held its first free elections following Muammar Gaddafi's removal, winning plaudits from the global community.

Leading a chorus of praise, US President Barack Obama said the vote was "another milestone" in Libya's transition to democracy.

"On behalf of the American people, I extend my congratulations to the people of Libya for another milestone on their extraordinary transition to democracy," he said.

"Today's historic election underscores that the future of Libya is in the hands of the Libyan people."

Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague said the vote was a "landmark", while his Italian counterpart, Giulio Terzi, hailed a "watershed" moment for its former colony and crucial energy source.

Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, who heads a team of 21 European Union observers, said large numbers of Libyans had voted "peacefully and free of fear and intimidation".

The make-up of the congress being elected has been a matter of heated debate, with factions such as the federalist movement in the east calling for more seats and staging acts of sabotage both before and during the elections. If the trend is confirmed, Libya, unlike Tunisia and Egypt, whose strongmen were also toppled in last year's Arab Spring, will buck the trend of electoral success for Islamist movements.

"Early reports show that the coalition is leading the polls in the majority of constituencies," the secretary-general of the National Forces Alliance, Faisal Krekshi, said.

The alliance, which groups more than 40 small parties, is headed by Mahmud Jibril, who played a prominent role as rebel prime minister during last year's popular revolt that toppled dictator Gaddafi and ended his four-decade rule.

The leader of one of Libya's main Islamist parties, also basing his assessment on their vote-count observers, acknowledged the rival coalition had the edge in the country's two largest cities.

"The National Forces Alliance achieved good results in some large cities, except Misrata. They have a net lead in Tripoli and in Benghazi," said Mohammed Sawan, who heads the Justice and Construction Party.

"But it is a tight race for us in the south," said Mr Sawan, a former member of Libya's Muslim Brotherhood, which launched the party.

The bulk of Libya's population and registered voters are concentrated in the capital, and in the eastern city of Benghazi.

Libyans on Saturday voted for a General National Congress, a 200-member legislative assembly which will steer the country through a transition period. Turnout was above 60%, the electoral commission said. A total of 80 seats in the congress are reserved for political entities while the remaining 120 are held for individual candidates, some of whom are allied to specific parties.

There was violence ahead of the polls, ballots were stolen and one voting station was razed.

Votes were still being tallied, with preliminary results expected by tonight or early tomorrow. But early media reports seemed to back the party leaders' claims.

Private channel Al-Assima TV said the coalition was far ahead in the capital, scooping 80% in the district of Tripoli Centre, and 90% in the impoverished district of Abu Slim.

Its lead, the channel said, was also strong in the troubled east, with preliminary figures giving it 70% in Benghazi and 80% in Al-Bayda, hometown of Libya's interim leader, Mustafa Abdel Jalil.

"The first winner is the Libyan people," declared Nuri Abbar, head of the electoral commission, at the end of a roller-coaster voting day which was briefly clouded by unrest. Apart from acts of sabotage in eastern Libya and one death in Ajdabiya as unknown gunmen opened fire near a polling station, the vote was held in a festive atmosphere in the major cities.