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First Round of Voting Peaceful in Kashmir Elections - 2002-09-16

The first round of voting in Indian-administered Kashmir has ended with authorities reporting a 44 percent turnout in state assembly elections. Islamic militants had threatened to disrupt the poll, but the voting was relatively peaceful

The turnout was light in several areas where disillusionment with Indian rule, or fear of violence kept voters at home. But it was heavy in others such as the Kargil and Poonch border districts, where people waited in lines to cast their vote.

India's Deputy Election Commissioner, Sayan Chaterjee, said the polls were satisfactory, although the pattern of voting varied widely.

"In Baramullah [district] there is one constituency called Hurez where the percentage went up as high as 65 percent, there is another constituency called Sopore where the percent is very low, it will be anything between three to five percent only," he said.

Some voters said they felt caught between militants who have threatened to kill anyone participating in the polls, and pressure from Indian officials if they did not vote.

The vote was held following a surge in violence during campaigning. But there was massive security, and only sporadic violence was reported on voting day. Mr. Chaterjee said explosions near several polling stations did not hamper voting.

"There have been several incidents during the course of the polling today, but the poll has taken place in all the polling stations," he said. Poll workers wore bullet-proof vests at some voting centers. Soldiers stood guard on rooftops around the heavily guarded polling stations. People had to pass metal detectors before they could vote.

More than 20 diplomats from several countries witnessed the polling, which New Delhi has promised will be free, fair and transparent. India wants greater participation in the poll process to prove its contention that support is waning for a 13-year Muslim separatist insurgency.

But Kashmir's main political separatist alliance, the All Parties Huriyat Conference, boycotted the elections, saying they have not been linked to a settlement of the Kashmir dispute.

Some villagers and separatist leaders claimed many people were forced to vote by security forces, Indian officials denied it, saying there was no intimidation of voters.

Pakistan reiterated accusations that the Kashmir elections are a "sham" and said the people of the troubled region did not want them.

The elections in Kashmir will conclude October 8, after three more rounds of voting.