BINT JBEIL, Lebanon -- Hezbollah and its Shi'ite allies claimed a massive victory in southern Lebanon in yesterday's second stage of national elections, a vote the militant group hopes will prove its strength and send a message of defiance to the United States.
Hundreds of Hezbollah supporters drove through the streets of Beirut waving the group's yellow flag and the green flag of Amal in celebration. In Beirut's predominantly Shi'ite southern suburbs, people lit up the sky with fireworks.
Four hours after polling stations closed, Hezbollah's deputy leader, Sheik Naim Kassem, and election ally Nabih Berri of the Shi'ite Muslim Amal movement said they had won all 23 seats in this region bordering Israel. Official results were not expected until today.
''It has become clear that all members of the Resistance, Liberation, and Development Ticket have won in [southern Lebanon's] two regions," Kassem told reporters. ''The south has declared through this vote its clear stance in supporting this track."
He said that in one constituency, with more than half the votes counted, Hezbollah official Mohammed Raad was leading with 69,207 votes against his closest rival, Elias Abu Rizk, with 7,000 votes.
In the other, with more than a third of the votes counted, Berri was leading with 35,560 while his closest opponent, Riad Asaad, had 5,304 votes, Kassem said.
Berri thanked the people for ''renewing the confidence in the ticket that all its members have won."
The elections, divided by region and spread over four consecutive Sundays, began last week in the capital of Beirut, where the dominant issue was the February assassination of former premier Rafik Hariri.
His killing triggered massive street protests at home and outrage abroad that eventually forced Syria to pull its army out of Lebanon, ending three decades of military domination.
''All the south came out today to send a clear message to the Americans that they embrace the resistance [Hezbollah's] 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 in yesterday's second phase of four-stage parliamentary elections.
The United States, which labels Hezbollah a terrorist organization, wants the guerrilla group to abandon its weapons in line with last year's UN Security Council Resolution 1559. Hezbollah has refused to disarm, a position backed by Lebanese authorities.
Voter turnout was noticeably heavy in Shi'ite areas and lower in Christian and Sunni Muslim districts, according to preliminary estimates by candidates' campaigns 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 won before the balloting even began because there were no major challengers.
Citizens who did vote expressed strong support for Hezbollah, the guerrilla group that fought Israel during an 18-year occupation. Israel occupied south Lebanon from 1982 to 2000.
''We should show our support for the resistance and those who were martyred for the sake of liberating this country," a smiling Kamel Hamka, 77, said as he walked out of a polling station in Bint Jbeil, a Shi'ite town a few miles from the Israeli border.
Outside a polling station in the town's center, veiled young women, Hezbollah activists, distributed candidate lists and cars blared guerrilla songs and speeches from loudspeakers to encourage voters.
''The people's participation in the elections is a vote for the resistance and its weapons," said Hassan Fadlallah, a Hezbollah candidate allied with Amal.
Hezbollah expects that strong voter support will give it greater political influence to confront international pressure to disarm now that its Syrian backers have withdrawn from the country.