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Kashmir Vote Ends with Higher Than Expected Turnout

In Indian-administered Kashmir, the final phase of state assembly elections has concluded with a higher than expected four-round turnout of about 44 percent. More election violence killed at least two policeman and one militant.

The last round of polling in Kashmir began with an attack by suspected Muslim militants on a polling station in the Town Hall in Doda, about 170 kilometers east of Kashmir's winter capital, Jammu. Police say the militants hurled grenades and opened fire, triggering a fierce gunbattle between security forces and the militants.

Election officials say despite the violence, the day's voter turnout was more than 50 percent. There was massive security for the election, which took place in Doda district bordering Pakistan and another district in northern Kashmir.

The vote marked the last stage of polling in a four-phase election that began in mid-September to choose a new state assembly. It has been a bloody election marked by a string of attacks by suspected Islamic rebels who had vowed to disrupt the polls. Officials say more than 500 people have been killed since the poll process began in August.

Deputy Election Commissioner Sayan Chatterjee said the overall voter turnout of about 44 percent is satisfactory, because the polls were held in the shadow of violence, boycotts and threats by Muslim militants.

"Considering the situation under, which these elections were conducted, the militancy which is prevalent which was constantly there to dissuade people from going to the polls, I think state average of about 44 percent is satisfactory," said the official.

Vote counting begins Thursday, and is expected to be completed the same day. Mr. Chatterjee says stringent arrangements have been made to ensure a fair count. "The [Election] Commission has issued very detailed instructions to ensure that the counting process progresses without any hitch," he said.

Separatist political groups boycotted the elections, and called the polling a meaningless exercise. They say the elections will not address the heart of the problem in Kashmir, which has been plagued by a violent separatist insurgency since 1989.

New Delhi hopes the elections will boost its authority in the region, which is claimed by both India and Pakistan. The government allowed diplomats from several western countries to observe the elections, which it says were free and fair.

Indian officials say the voter turnout indicates that support for the separatist insurgency is waning.

Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee on a visit to Cyprus - said India will never give up Kashmir. Indian news agencies quoted him as saying that the "people of Kashmir have given a message to Pakistan. They want an end to violence and bloodshed."

Pakistani officials have called the elections in Kashmir a farce, but deny supporting the militant groups who threatened to disrupt the polls.