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Violence Deters Voters in Kashmir - 2002-09-24

Voters in Indian-administered Kashmir went to the polls, in the second phase of four-phase elections for the state assembly. Election violence kept many voters at home, and voter turnout was lower than recorded in the first phase of voting last week.

Heavy gunfire cast a pall over voting in Srinagar, the summer capital of India's Jammu and Kashmir State.

Suspected separatist militants seized a polling station, just hours before voting began. They continued their battle with Indian Security forces until police ended the siege by setting fire to the building killing at least two militants. Two police officers died in the incident.

The violence and a strike called by separatist political parties left most Srinagar polling stations empty.

Casting his ballot just a few kilometers from where paramilitary troops were fighting the militants, Farouk Abdullah, blamed Pakistan for the violence and defended his government's record during the past six years.

"We are fighting a war with Pakistan," Mr. Abdullah pointed out. "On the other hand, in these six years, we have done as much as possible as a government could do. The roads that we could build with the resources we had. The schools we could start improve, the hospitals we could improve, the jobs we could give. The tragedy is that we are dependent on tourism and there is hardly any tourism at all."

Turnout in Srinagar was sparse. Voting was reported to be more extensive in the winter capital, Jammu, and in Budgam District just outside Srinagar. Officials say overall turnout was 42 percent on Tuesday, lower than the 47 percent turnout recorded in the first phase of voting, September 16.

Final results from all four rounds of voting are expected October 10.

Separatist militants have vowed to kill candidates and anyone voting. Separatist political parties have called for a boycott, saying the election does not address the issue of self-determination for Kashmiris.

Abdul Ghani Bhat, the chairman of the All Parties Huriyat Conference, a grouping of more than 20 separatist parties, says the elections should never have been held, given the current climate of violence and intimidation in Kashmir.

"You can never ever insure voluntary participation of the voters and credibility of the results," said Mr. Bhat. "You can never do it in Kashmir, amidst the role of the gun and amidst this bloodshed, amidst the element of uncertainty and bickering between the government of Kashmir and the government in Delhi, the election commission on the one hand and the government, the bureaucracy and the army on the other hand. In such an environment, you should never talk of elections, much less hold elections."

Despite the violence, some voters cast ballots in Srinagar. One who did was Mohammed Ashraf Shah, a Congress Party activist. Mr. Shah says many people stayed home because of threats of violence.

"People are not coming out," he said. "There is a low turnout because of the threat that the militants have given to everybody. So that is the primary reason for the low turnout."

Mohammed Ashraf Shah says he understands why many Kashmiri's do not want to vote. But he says, by not voting, Kashmiri's are giving up a chance to elect leaders who might be involved in settling the Kashmir dispute - if and when India and Pakistan agree to sit down and try to settle their differences.