December 24, 2008 / 9:31 AM / 11 years ago

Clashes before polls close in crucial Kashmir vote

SRINAGAR, India (Reuters) - Polls closed in Kashmir’s main city on Wednesday, bringing to an end the crucial final phase of state elections in the disputed region after sporadic clashes between police and dozens of separatists.

Indian policemen personnel patrol an area during the seventh and last phase of local elections in Srinagar December 24, 2008. Thousands of Indian troops patrolled streets when voting opened in Kashmir's main city on Wednesday in the crucial last phase of state polls overshadowed by heightened tensions between India and Pakistan. REUTERS/Fayaz Kabli

The lead-up to the vote had been overshadowed by heightened tension between India and Pakistan, which both claim Kashmir, after last month’s Mumbai attacks. India deployed thousands of police and troops in case of separatist violence in Kashmir.

In Srinagar, the heart of a nearly 20-year separatist campaign against Indian rule, police said 15 people were injured when police clashed with dozens of stone-throwing protesters in three areas. Three police were among the injured.

Police responded with batons and teargas.

“Overall the voting was peaceful and the turnout is considerably higher than in 2002 elections,” said Kulbushan Jandail, the Jammu and Kashmir government’s chief spokesman.

Officials said after polls closed there had been a 20 percent voter turnout in Muslim-majority Srinagar, Kashmir’s summer capital, compared with 5.2 percent in the last polls in 2002, and 65 percent in Hindu-majority Jammu, the state’s winter capital.

Statewide results are expected on Sunday for the poll, the third vote in the state since an insurgency began in 1989.

In Srinagar, police and soldiers armed with assault rifles blocked off lanes with razor wire and iron barricades, while sniffer dogs searched polling booths for bombs over fears terrorists would try to disrupt the poll.

In the past, separatists have killed candidates and party workers, vandalized polling stations and attacked rallies, but this year’s poll was relatively trouble-free.

Around 800 people were killed during the 2002 campaign.

Indian police said on Tuesday they had arrested three militants, one of them a Pakistani soldier, for allegedly planning a suicide attack during the vote but Pakistan denied the man was a serving soldier.

Kashmiri separatists, many of them in jail, called for a boycott of the seven-stage election, saying India portrays voting as an endorsement of its rule over the Himalayan region.

VIRTUALLY EMPTY

Many polling stations in Srinagar had been virtually empty early in the day, especially in the city center. But there was a cheerful mood on the city’s outskirts as voters queued outside, dressed in flowing woolen robes to keep out the winter chill.

A high turnout in the previous six rounds of the election, which began on November 17, has encouraged Indian authorities despite the scattered clashes between separatists and government forces.

“I am voting for better government,” 30-year-old hotelier Imtiyaz Ahmad said before entering a polling booth.

“The government will give us security, better administration. The freedom (of Kashmir) is a separate issue.”

Nearly 1.7 million voters were eligible to cast their votes in the last phase. At least 393 candidates contested elections for 87 assembly seats across the state, with 21 in total up for grabs in Jammu and Srinagar cities.

The arrest of the three militants on Tuesday came as nuclear-armed rivals India and Pakistan traded barbs in the fallout from last month’s Mumbai attacks that killed 179 people.

Slideshow (8 Images)

India blames the assault on the Pakistan-based militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba, which was set up to fight Indian rule in Kashmir and has been linked to Pakistan’s powerful Inter-Services Intelligence military spy agency.

Overall violence has fallen significantly across Kashmir since India and Pakistan began peace talks in 2004, although New Delhi has imposed a “pause” in that dialogue since the Mumbai attack on November 26-29.

Officials say more than 47,000 people have been killed in nearly two decades of violence involving Indian troops and Islamist militants in Kashmir, which was hit by massive anti-India protests earlier this year.

Editing by Matthias Williams and Sugita Katyal

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