Voters in Nepal have begun casting ballots in the country's first nationwide municipal elections in seven years.

Security forces have been authorized to shoot anyone caught disrupting the controversial elections.

Heavily guarded polling stations opened early Wednesday, but so far only a handful of the country's nearly two-million registered voters have turned out to vote.

Elections are taking place in only 36 of Nepal's municipalities. The remaining 22 either do not have anyone running, or candidates are running unopposed.

Nepal's government says the polls are a step toward democracy. But opposition parties and communist rebels call the elections a sham aimed at legitimizing King Gyanendra's seizure of absolute power a year ago.

Rebels have threatened to harm anyone who participates in the vote.

Some information for this report was provided by AFP, AP and Reuters.