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Tough security for Indian Kashmir’s first vote since semi-autonomy cancelled

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Voters in Indian-administered Kashmir went to the polls Saturday amid a heavy security presence in the first direct elections in the disputed region since the government stripped its semi-autonomy last year.

Under high alert for attacks by separatist militants, dozens of police and paramilitaries carrying machine guns surrounded each voting station while the army kept up street patrols.

Observers said only small numbers braved the security, coronavirus fears and snow-covered terrain to elect members of their local councils. Voting is to be held over eight days up to December 19 with the count to start three days later.

At a polling booth in the Kashmir valley, Faizi, 70, told AFP she had voted “to facilitate development work, like paving the roads.”

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The Himalayan region, which is also claimed by Pakistan, has been under a heavy security blanket since the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government imposed direct rule in August 2019.

Two soldiers were killed in an ambush blamed on militants in the main city Srinagar on Thursday.

Thermal scanners were set up at polling booths and staff handed out facemasks and hand sanitizer as precautions against the coronavirus.

While the local councils have only limited powers, several Kashmir political parties, including the influential National Conference and Peoples Democratic Party have formed an alliance to campaign for the restoration of the region’s political autonomy.

The alliance has accused the government of harassing its candidates while helping those from the BJP. The local election commission denied the allegations.

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A day before polling, authorities restricted PDP leader Mehbooba Mufti to her home and police stopped reporters from attending a press conference she called.

Mufti was among scores of political leaders held under house arrest for months after the clampdown.

Kashmir has been divided between India and Pakistan since their bitter split at independence in 1947. Both claim the territory in full.

Militant groups have been fighting Indian forces since 1989 in an uprising that has left tens of thousands dead, mainly civilians.