Voting began yesterday in Pakistan's portion of Kashmir to choose a new regional legislature that will face the challenge of rebuilding the Himalayan region, hit by a devastating earthquake last year.
An alliance of three political groups, meanwhile, planned rallies in Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistani Kashmir, and other cities to protest a government decision to prevent them from participating in the elections.
The decision to keep out the All Parties National Alliance -- which demands Kashmir's independence from both India and Pakistan -- from the elections was made after it refused to comply with a rule that it back Pakistani control, said Moham-med Naseem Sheikh, the top election official in Kashmir.
Some 2.4 million people are eligible to vote in the elections, in which 300 candidates are contesting 41 seats in Kashmir's assembly, Sheikh said.
The lawmakers elected yesterday will then vote to fill eight other seats -- five of them reserved for women -- in the 49-member house.
Some 8,000 army troops, 16,000 police and paramilitary troops have been deployed to provide security for the election in the rugged region, Sheikh said.
In 1991, 15 people died in poll-related violence in the area.
But polling was peaceful early yesterday.
"People are very excited but they are voting in a very disciplined manner," said Iftikharuddin Gillani, supervisor of a polling station in Chakothi, a town about 50km southeast of Muzaffarabad, near the Line of Control that divides Kashmir into portions administered by Pakistan and India.
Pakistan and India both claim all of Kashmir. The nuclear-armed rivals have fought two wars over Kashmir since their independence from British rule in 1947.
About 50 people were lined up outside the polling station, a tent erected in the middle of rice paddies and nearby buildings ruined by the magnitude 7.6 quake that hit Oct. 8.
The quake devastated entire villages in Kashmir and northern Pakistan, killing more than 80,000 people and leaving more than 2 million others homeless, many of whom still live in tents with assistance from aid groups.
"I hope that the government that will come after this election will take full steps for survivors of the earthquake like us," said Abdul Hakeem, a 46-year-old grocery shop owner who was waiting to vote in Chakothi.
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