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Libya assembly votes in first Berber as new chief

Nouri Abusahmain, the new head of Libya's General National Congress (GNC), smiles in Tripoli June 25, 2013. REUTERS/Ismail Zitouny

TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Libya’s national assembly elected a minority Berber as its new president on Tuesday after his predecessor quit following passage of legislation curbing who can hold public office - a move to ban ex-associates of late dictator Muammar Gaddafi.

The previous assembly chief, Mohammed Magarief, stepped down after the enactment of the law barring anyone who held a senior post under Gaddafi from government, regardless whether they had played a role in toppling him two years ago.

Nouri Abusahmain, from the Amazigh (Berber) minority and a political independent, won 96 votes to opponent Al-Sharif al-Wafi’s 80 in a run-off after a first round with nine candidates. He had the backing of the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Justice and Construction Party, lawmakers said.

Abusahmain will preside over preparations to set up a committee to draft a democratic constitution for the troubled North African oil-producing state, which has been plagued by armed violence since Gaddafi’s demise in a popular uprising.

Six soldiers were killed on Tuesday when gunmen attacked a checkpoint south of the coastal city of Sirte.

Abusahmain, from the western Mediterranean coastal town of Zuwara, became the first Berber to hold such a senior government post after decades in which Gaddafi suppressed Berber culture including its language.

Abusahmain had worked in the assembly president’s office, organising sessions among other tasks. He previously studied law and worked in a major petrochemicals plant near his hometown.

“What happened today is a sign we can prove to the world that we are democratic in our choices and we don’t take into account regional factors when making decisions,” Giuma Attaigha, who served as interim assembly president after Magarief resigned, told reporters.

Gaddafi imprisoned dozens of Amazigh intellectuals in the 1980s whom he accused of plotting to overthrow the state. Since his overthrow and killing in a popular uprising, the Berber community has been lobbying for more rights.

Additional reporting and writing by Marie-Louise Gumuchian; editing by Mark Heinrich