Fri, Dec 26, 2008 - Page 5 News List

Voting ends in Indian Kashmir

HIGH SECURITY India implemented a staggered voting system that allowed it to send thousands of troops to the region to prevent violence from flaring up again

AP , SRINAGAR, INDIA

Hundreds of protesters chanting pro-independence slogans clashed with soldiers in the main city of Indian-controlled Kashmir during the last day of voting in state elections.

At least nine people were injured when troops fired tear gas shells and used bamboo batons to stop the protesters marching to the center of Srinagar on Wednesday, a police officer said on condition of anonymity in keeping with department policy.

Separatists have urged residents to protest and boycott the poll, saying the election will only strengthen India’s hold on the Himalayan region. Anti-India sentiment runs deep in Kashmir, where most people favor either independence or a merger with Pakistan.

Kashmir is divided between India and Pakistan and claimed by both.

The elections, which began on Nov. 17, were being held in seven phases. The results are expected to be announced on Sunday.

The staggered balloting allowed the government to deploy thousands of security forces in each area in a bid to prevent the deadly violence sparked by elections in 2002 and thwart separatist attempts to enforce the boycott.

Voting in earlier stages of the election was largely peaceful, with a higher-than-expected turnout of more than 60 percent, though scattered anti-India protests have continued throughout.

But voter turnout was low on Wednesday in Srinagar, where authorities banned gatherings of more than five people to thwart possible anti-India protests, the police official said. Troops also sealed off neighborhoods with steel barricades and razor wire to prevent people from congregating.

“How can we vote for the candidates who are being protected by soldiers who have killed thousands of Kashmiris,” said Shabir Ahmed, a protester in Srinagar.

In Muslim-majority areas in Srinagar, voter turnout was about 20 percent. It was about 70 percent in Hindu-majority areas in Jammu, said B.R. Sharma, the state’s chief election officer.

About 1.6 million of the state’s roughly 6.5 million eligible voters live in the areas voting.

Relations between longtime rivals India and Pakistan have been especially tense since last month’s shooting attacks in Mumbai, which killed at least 172 people. Indian authorities have blamed Pakistan-based Kashmiri separatist group, Lashkar-e-Taiba.

Separatist groups have been fighting since 1989 to end Indian rule. The uprising and a subsequent Indian crackdown have killed about 68,000 people, most of them civilians.

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