GROZNY, Russia (Reuters) - Russia's strife-torn Muslim North Caucasus region will vote in the country's parliamentary election on Sunday with thousands of armed security officers on guard while homes are searched and street markets are closed, officials said on Friday.
More than a decade after federal forces won the second of two wars against Chechen separatists, violence rooted in those conflicts is raging in an Islamist insurgency that claimed at least 600 lives in the first nine months of this year.
Chechnya is expected to have 12,000 guards on duty in the small republic, many of them surrounding the 456 polling stations, head of the regional Interior Ministry Ruslan Alkhanov told local officials. At least half of the guards will be armed.
"We are obliged to ensure citizens can exercise their voting rights safely. We will work on this day and night," he said in the regional capital Grozny.
Neighboring regions Dagestan and Ingushetia, both beset by near daily Islamist violence, will have similar amounts of guards on duty, the state-run RIA news agency reported.
Moscow relies on the leaders in the North Caucasus for support as much as the Kremlin relies on them, particularly Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, to maintain a shaky peace in the region where rebels bent on carving out a separate Islamic state stage shootouts and bomb attacks.
While most of the violence in the North Caucasus is directed at law enforcement officers, the voting booths could become a target for rebels wanting to quit Russia, an unnamed security official told Reuters.
Armed guards will also be sent to small villages with only a few hundred inhabitants, Alkhanov said.
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's ruling United Russia is expected to win the election to the State Duma lower house at Sunday's poll.
But Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev have struggled during a lackluster election campaign to prevent the party's huge majority being cut after signs of weariness with the party.
The second Chechen war Putin launched in 1999 helped boost his popularity before Boris Yeltsin resigned on the last day of that year, making him president, a post he served between 2000-2008.
Some Chechens fear that Putin's planned return to the presidency in a March election could mean a turn for the worse in the small republic, saying his personal ties to Kadyrov will further foster the Chechen leader's personality cult and a clampdown on freedoms.
Writing by Amie Ferris-Rotman and Thomas Grove in Moscow; Editing by Andrew Heavens