As Libyans celebrated their first free national election in 60 years on Sunday, a liberal alliance led by a former rebel leader said its unofficial preliminary returns showed it was in the lead.

Faisal Krekshi, secretary-general of the Alliance of National Forces led by former interim premier Mahmoud Jibril, told the Associated Press he was basing his results on reports by party representatives at ballot counting centers across the vast desert nation. He gave no details, and the head of the election commission refused to confirm the claim.

We are all waiting, and we have nothing to suggest that one party is ahead of others, election commission chief Nouri al-Abar said. He also refused to set a date for announcing official results. He added that the first winner is the Libyan people. 

But officials from two rival parties, the Muslim Brotherhood's Justice and Construction Party and the Islamist Al-Watan, agreed that Jibril's alliance was the biggest winner in the race for the 80 party seats, citing their own election observers.  

Abar said authorities have started transporting ballot boxes from polling stations around the country to the main tally center in Tripoli, CNN reported. Tallying began at polling centers Saturday night.

Some preliminary results could be announced Sunday or Monday, he said, according to the state-run LANA news agency.

Libyans voted Saturday for a 200-seat legislature. Eighty seats are set aside for party lists, and the remaining 120 are for individual independent candidates.

Al-Abar, the election commission chief, said preliminary figures showed 1.7 million of nearly 2.9 million eligible voters, or about 63 percent, cast their ballots Saturday. He also said voters who were not able to cast their ballots for security reasons were allowed to vote on Sunday.

With the majority of parliament's seats dedicated to individual candidates, even if Jibril's Alliance of National Forces were to claim the largest share of the party seats, it is not guaranteed of being the dominant force in the legislature. 

Jibril is a member of Libya's most populous tribe, the Warfalla, as well as the former interim prime minister who helped lead the de facto rebel government in Benghazi.

But Jibril and his coalition also stood out from other opponents of Islamists around the region, because they hurled accusations of extremism against those who called for Islamic law, the New York Times reports. Like the Islamists and almost every other major faction here, his coalition pledged to make Islamic law a main source of legislation, though not the only one.

Many voters acknowledged that tribal or family ties would guide their vote. But the Islamists sought to portray Jibril's coalition as liberal or secular -- and some who stood with him acknowledged privately that for them those terms were perfectly apt. But Jibril himself echoed a frequent refrain of Libyan voters unsure what to make of reemergent groups like the Muslim Brotherhood: Do they think they are more Muslim than we are?

A former professor of political science who earned his doctoral degree and then taught at the University of Pittsburgh, Jibril said in a recent interview on Libyan television that his neighbors in either the United States or Libya would describe him as someone who goes to the mosque for Friday prayers, and we see that he prays.

Jibril was a senior official and economist under Moammar Gadhafi's regime until he changed sides and joined the rebels after the uprising broke out, serving as the rebels' interim prime minister for almost eight months. Jibril himself could not run on the ballot because election laws prevent members of the interim National Transitional Council from running, but he serves as the leader of the coalition that brings together some 40 liberal parties. 

The vote was characterized by scenes of joy and a sense of triumph by Libyans emerging from more than four decades of repressive one-man rule under Gadhafi.

Revelers lit the night sky over the capital, Tripoli, with fireworks, while in the eastern city of Benghazi, scene of protests agaisnt the election by those wanting more autonomy, people celebrated by firing rocket-propelled grenades in the direction of the sea.

Even in Gadhafi's hometown of Sirte, which saw some of the worst fighting and damage in last year's NATO-backed uprising to end his 42-year rule, there was relief that the vote on Saturday had gone smoothly.

Allahu akbar [God is greatest], this is the freedom era -- for the first time Sirte is free, chanted a local woman as she celebrated with her family, Reuters reported.

One man was shot dead by a security guard on Saturday as he tried to steal a ballot box in the eastern town of Ajdabiya. Another was killed in gunfire in a clash between protesters and backers of the poll in Benghazi, the cradle of last year's uprising.

In Benghazi, protesters stormed a polling station just after voting started and set fire to hundreds of ballot slips in a public square in a bid to undermine the election's credibility.

There wasn't enough security at the station to stop the attackers, Nasser Zwela, 28, told Reuters. At least four voting centers were the scenes of tense standoffs between anti-poll protesters and armed locals seeking to prevent any disruption.

After more than 40 years in which Libya was in the grip of a dictator, today's historic election underscores that the future of Libya is in the hands of the Libyan people, U.S. President Barack Obama said.

Obama pledged the United States would act as a partner even as he cautioned there would still be difficult challenges ahead.

Now the hard work really begins to build an effective, transparent government that unifies the country and delivers for the Libyan people, and the United States stands ready to assist Libyans in their transition to a free democratic Libya at peace with your neighbors, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told a news conference in Tokyo on Sunday.

Many easterners remain angry the east has been allotted only 60 seats in the assembly compared with 102 for the west and have vowed to keep up their fight for greater national representation.