Voters in separatist Chechnya are choosing a new president in a Kremlin-sponsored election billed as the first step toward peace. But critics say there should be no election as long as the war in the southern Russian republic continues.

Voters had a choice of seven candidates overall, but Kremlin appointee Akhmad Kadyrov was seen as the most likely winner because the last two challengers viewed as having any real chance of beating him either dropped out or were removed from the race.

Russian news reports say voting is proceeding calmly and there are no immediate reports of violence.

The chief of the region's electoral commission said that as of noon local time, 19 percent of Chechnya's nearly 600,000 voters had cast ballots.

But Russia's Itar-Tass news agency and government-controlled RTR television report that the 30 percent threshold needed to declare the vote valid has been reached.

Preliminary results are not expected until Monday. But many in Chechnya and abroad have questioned the validity of the vote, citing the lack of challengers to Mr. Kadyrov.

After casting his vote, Mr. Kadyrov expressed confidence he would win the poll outright. He also said that, if elected, his first task as president would be to create a commission to investigate all the crimes committed in Chechnya during the past nine years.

Tens of thousands of people have died in fighting since Moscow first dispatched forces to the region in 1994. Federal forces were withdrawn in 1996, and three years of de facto independence prevailed until Russian forces returned to the region in 1999.

Since then, the two sides have been bogged down in a guerrilla-style war, with both sides sustaining near daily casualties.

Chechnya's separatists have vowed to continue their struggle for independence from Russia, despite the outcome of Sunday's election.

Russia has arranged for an unprecedented level of security in the republic to ensure a smooth vote. As many as 16,000 police are on high alert, guarding polling stations and trying to maintain calm.

Witnesses report that women casting ballots were subjected to the toughest security checks, a stark reminder of the rise in female suicide bombers engaged by the Chechen separatists.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has long ruled out negotiations with Chechnya's separatists, whom he views as terrorists.

The Organization of the Islamic Conference and the Arab League are the only international organizations to have sent observers to the elections.

Western rights groups decided against participating, saying they did not want to seem as if they were legitimizing the poll. Others expressed security concerns.