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Presidential Vote Under Way in Chechnya Amid Fears of Violence - 2004-08-29

Voting is under way in Russia's breakaway region of Chechnya to select a replacement for a president who was killed in a bomb attack. One man has blown himself up near a polling station, and there are fears separatist rebels could disrupt the vote.

The polling booths have opened across Chechnya, but many voters are staying away, fearing that separatist rebels will make good on their promise to disrupt an election they call a sham.

Many people left the capital city, Grozny, after widespread fighting a week ago left more than 40 dead, including police and security officials. Police presence is heavy for the vote, which was called after president Akhmad Kadyrov was killed in a bombing last May. Rebel fighters claimed responsibility and have vowed to target any new pro-Moscow leader, including the expected winner of Sunday's vote, Alu Alkhanov.

Mr. Alkhanov is a career policeman and current interior minister who has the full support of the Kremlin. He has appeared on state-run television, meeting with various Moscow leaders, including President Vladimir Putin, who just a week ago flew to Chechnya for a brief visit to Mr. Kadyrov's grave.

Six other candidates are running in the presidential election, but all are relative unknowns. The only other candidate who had a realistic chance of challenging Mr. Alkhanov was previously disqualified on a technicality. Alexei Malashenko is a political analyst with the Carnegie Center in Moscow. He says there's little real choice in the vote.

"I think that the majority of the society thinks that these aren't an election, but this is a kind of appointment," he said.

Mr. Malashenko also says most Chechens feel the vote will do little to bring peace to Chechnya, where Russian troops have been trying to crush a bid for independence for most of the past decade.

The election is now overshadowed by the crashes of two Russian airliners last week which appear to have been acts of terror possibly linked to Chechnya.

Investigators have found traces of an explosive powder in the wreckage of both planes, and they're examining the bodies of two women with Chechen surnames who were on the flights.

No relatives have come forward to retrieve the bodies of the women, leading to suspicions they may have been suicide bombers.