Pakistan's disputed Northern Areas go to polls

GILGIT, Pakistan Thu Nov 12, 2009 8:22am EST

A woman stands in a queue to cast her vote during an election of the Legislative assembly for Northern Areas in Gilgit-Baltistan November 12, 2009. REUTERS/Abrar Tanoli

A woman stands in a queue to cast her vote during an election of the Legislative assembly for Northern Areas in Gilgit-Baltistan November 12, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Abrar Tanoli

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GILGIT, Pakistan (Reuters) - Voters in Pakistan's mountainous far north went to the polls on Thursday to elect an assembly for their district as part of an autonomy package that has angered old rival India.

Pakistan's Northern Areas have never officially been part of the country, instead they have been a part of the Pakistani-controlled portion of the disputed Kashmir region since shortly after Pakistan's independence in 1947.

In August, Pakistan announced a plan aimed at giving more of a say to the people of the strategic region, renamed Gilgit-Baltistan, with a first step being an election for an assembly.

People of the sparsely populated region turned out in force to cast their votes.

"It's our basic right to have our own assembly and our own representatives," said Mohammad Owais, a 40-year-old shopkeeper standing in a long queue at a polling station in Gilgit, the region's main town. "Today we have been given this right."

The country's two main political parties, several smaller ones and independent candidates are competing for seats in a 24-member assembly.

Bordering China on one side and the mainly Buddhist Indian region of Ladakh on the other, the area is known to mountaineers as home to some of the world's highest peaks.

"HUE AND CRY"

Although Pakistan has held the region since its first war with India in 1948, its status was left in limbo as Pakistan had not wanted to compromise its case in the dispute over Kashmir.

The Himalayan region, which Pakistan and India both claim in full but rule in part, remains at the core of six decades of hostility between the now nuclear-armed neighbors.

In September, India protested to Pakistan over its reform package, saying it was meant to "camouflage Pakistan's illegal occupation" of the area. Pakistan dismissed India's objections.

But politicians in Pakistani Kashmir also oppose the reform package saying it is aimed at integrating Gilgit-Baltistan into Pakistan and would undermine their case for the independence of Kashmir from India.

About 300 activists from Kashmiri groups marked the election with a protest in Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistani Kashmir.

"Pakistan's expansionist designs in Gilgit-Baltistan are unacceptable," read a banner carried by some protesters.

Many of the 1.5 million people of Gilgit-Baltistan oppose integration into Kashmir and want their area to be merged into Pakistan and declared a separate province.

"It's an old habit of Kashmiri politicians to raise a hue and cry under the pretext of the Kashmir dispute whenever efforts are made to give us our basic rights," said Hussain Ali Rana, a politician in Gilgit.

"If people in (Indian) occupied and Azad (Pakistani) Kashmir can have their own assemblies, why can't we?"

(Additional reporting by Abu Arqam Naqash; Writing by Zeeshan Haider; Editing by Robert Birsel)

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