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In this March 2014 image released by the National Dialogue Preparatory Commission, Salwa Bugaighis, lawyer and rights activist, poses for a photograph during a meeting in Tripoli, Libya.Uncredited/The Associated Press

One of Libya's most prominent female activists was assassinated in the restive eastern city of Benghazi when gunmen stormed her house, the state news agency reported Thursday, in slaying that stunned many Libyans.

Salwa Bugaighis, a lawyer and rights activist, was at the forefront in the 2011 uprising against dictator Moammar Gadhafi and had since become an international face for Libyans' efforts to build democracy in their country. She was among the most outspoken voices against militiamen and Islamic extremists who have run rampant in the country since Gadhafi's fall.

The identity of the gunmen was not immediately known. Islamic radical militias, however, have been blamed for frequent assassinations of secular activists, judges, moderate clerics, policemen, soldiers in Benghazi, Libya's second largest city.

Bugaighis was shot in the head on Wednesday night, just hours after casting her ballot in Libya's parliament elections, the state news agency LANA reported. She was rushed to a hospital where she died of her wounds, it said.

Earlier in the day, she had been speaking by phone from her home on a Libyan TV channel about fighting raging near her neighbourhood, sparked when militants attacked army troops that had been deploying to protest polling station.

"These are people who want to foil elections," she told Al-Nabaa network as rattling gunfire interrupted her call. "Benghazi has been always defiant, and always will be despite the pain and fear. It will succeed."

In the evening, five gunmen broke into her home, the house's guard told police, according to the Al-Wasat newspaper. They first asked about her son Wael, then shot the guard in the leg, then broke into the house. The guard said he heard gunfire from inside.

Bugaighis's husband, who is a member of the Benghazi municipal council and was also at home at the time, has disappeared since the attack, the paper and other Libyan media said.

Bugaighis had only just come to Benghazi from the capital, Tripoli, especially to cast her ballot in the election, a family friend Hanaa Mohammed told Libya Ahrar TV. She had fled with her family some time back to Jordan because of death threats against them. The son, Wael, survived an abduction attempt earlier in the year.

More recently, she and her husband came back and were staying in Tripoli, though their two children — including Wael — remained in Jordan, a family friend said.

Bugaighis was a well-known figure in Benghazi, where her family is prominent. Since the civil war, she also became one of Libya's main faces abroad, representing the country at international conferences.

During Gadhafi's rule, she represented families of prisoners in Tripoli's notorious Abu Selim prison, pressing the government for the truth of what happened to 1,200 prisoners who disappeared, most of them Islamists from Benghazi.

During the 8-month civil war against Gadhafi, Bugaighis was a member of the National Transitional Council, the rebels' political leadership body. Since then, she was deputy head of the National Dialogue Preparatory Commission, which is trying to work out reconciliation among the country's rival factions, tribes and communities.

Her slaying stunned the community of activists, politicians and diplomats.

"All supporters of the truth are threatened," said Hassan al-Amin, another prominent activist and former head of the human rights committee in parliament, who fled abroad because of death threats.

On her Twitter page, U.S. ambassador Deborah K. Jones called her killing "a cowardly, despicable, shameful act against a courageous woman and true Libyan patriot. Heartbreaking."

The U.N. mission in Libya condemned the assassination in a statement, saying "once again, Benghazi witnesses a bloody attack, the last of a series largely targeting civilians."

Libyans voted on Wednesday in the country's second parliament elections, hoping for stability after three years of chaos since Gadhafi's ouster and death.

On her Facebook page, Bugaighis posted pictures for herself casting ballots in Benghazi.

Later, she gave the interview to Al-Nabaa TV as shelling hit her neighbourhood and smoke rose from nearby. She urged people to go to the polls and cast ballots, saying she hoped for a new parliament without the current domination by Islamists.

"From your network," she told the station, "I call upon our people in Benghazi to steadfast and be patient because elections must be accomplished."

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