Clashes disrupt fourth phase of Kashmir elections
By AIJAZ HUSSAIN,Associated Press Writer AP - 2 hours 52 minutes ago
SRINAGAR, India - Large crowds voted in several towns in Indian Kashmir on Sunday, while separatists in other areas boycotted the polls and clashed with government forces in the fourth phase of state elections in the disputed Himalayan region.
Muslim separatist leaders have called for a boycott of the vote in Jammu-Kashmir state, saying it will only entrench India's hold on the region. Some have been detained in recent months under a law that allows police to hold people for up to two years without trial.
Thousands of paramilitary soldiers and police wearing bulletproof jackets and carrying automatic weapons patrolled polling places across the region.
The elections for the state legislature, which began Nov. 17, are being held in seven phases through Dec. 24. The voting has been largely peaceful with a higher-than-expected turnout of over 60 percent.
The staggered balloting allows the government to deploy thousands of security forces in each area in an attempt to prevent a repeat of deadly violence during elections in 2002.
Protesters demonstrated Sunday outside polling places in Sopore, a town 30 miles (50 kilometers) northwest of Srinagar, the region's main city. Police and paramilitary soldiers fired gunshots into the air and lobbed tear gas to drive them away, a police officer said on condition of anonymity in keeping with department policy.
Anti-election protests were also reported in the nearby town of Baramulla and seven other villages in the region, the police officer said.
In one clash, at least six photographers, including one from The Associated Press, were injured by baton-swinging police.
Kashmir's police chief, B. Srinivas, said he regretted the incident and that police would investigate.
Government forces later stopped journalists from traveling to the polling areas.
Some 1.4 million of the state's roughly 6.5 million eligible voters live in the areas were voting took place Sunday. Turnout was not immediately available, but in some towns there were long lines of voters.
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 is claimed by both.
The elections come after some of the largest protests against Indian rule in decades in Jammu-Kashmir, India's only Muslim-majority state. At least 48 people died in weeks of protests last summer, most when Indian soldiers opened fire on Muslim demonstrators.
Militant 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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