Voters in separatist Chechnya have voted for a new president in a Kremlin-sponsored election billed as the first step toward peace. But critics say the election should not have been held as long as the war in the southern Russian republic continues.

Voters had a choice of seven candidates, but Kremlin appointee Akhmad Kadyrov is seen as the most likely winner when preliminary results are announced early Monday.

By nightfall, before the polls had closed, the head of the regions' election commission was declaring the vote a success. The official said the 30 percent of eligible voters threshold needed to validate the poll had been reached and that there had been no reports of vote fraud or violence.

Chechnya's pro-Russian prime minister and acting president, Anatoly Popov, seconded the officials' claims in reports on Russian television. Mr. Popov, sickened earlier this week in what some allege was an attempted poisoning, said the election went off without a hitch. He cited the presence of numerous outside experts and observers and said none had noted any abnormalities.

Western observers were not on hand to monitor the poll, having boycotted the election for fear of being seen as legitimizing a vote during an ongoing war.

Others question the validity of the election, citing the lack of serious challengers to Mr. Kadyrov after the leading contenders were sidelined last month.

After casting his vote, Mr. Kadyrov said that, if elected, his first task as president would be to create a commission to investigate all the crimes committed in Chechnya over the past nine years.

Tens of thousands of people have died inside and outside Chechnya 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 Federal forces were withdrawn in 1996 and three years of de facto independence prevailed, until Russian forces returned to the region in 1999.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, whatever the outcome of the election.