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Chechnya Holds Local Elections

Voting is underway for a local parliament in Russia's troubled southern republic of Chechnya. Security is tight, amid fears of possible rebel attacks. The Kremlin says the election is another step in the stabilization process in the war-torn region.

Voters are making their way to polling stations under heavy guard in an election expected to secure the grip of pro-Russian politicians in a region devastated by a decade of war.

About 600,000 Chechen voters, as well as tens-of-thousands of Russian soldiers stationed in the republic are eligible to cast ballots for 58 deputies for two houses of the local parliament.

Five officers in the Russian armed forces and many officials in the pro-Russian administration are among the 350 candidates.

The Kremlin says the election is the latest phase of what it calls the normalization of Chechnya, a region it says is now recovering from war. This is the first local parliamentary election since Moscow regained control of the region from separatists in 1999. The region has held two presidential elections and a referendum in the past two years, which many analysts have criticized as flawed.

Chechen President Alu Alkhanov was optimistic as he cast his ballot, saying a new phase of post-war reconstruction has begun.

"The Parliament will operate so that the entire republic can work actively and efficiently," he said. "It will pass laws to help the economy improve, to develop a market economy in an innovative way."

But critics say the situation in Chechnya is far from normal, with separatist rebels mounting frequent attacks against Russian troops and Chechen security forces.

Human rights groups say abuses against civilians continue, including the disappearance of young men suspected of being rebels.

The most feared group is the security apparatus run by Ramzan Kadyrov, now considered the most powerful man in Chechnya. He is the son of a previous Chechen president assassinated by the rebels last year.

There are some observers on hand to monitor the polling, almost all from Russia or other former Soviet republics.

International and Russian human rights groups have criticized the vote, noting that it is taking place amid continuing violence.