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Last Updated: Sunday, 3 October, 2004, 19:40 GMT 20:40 UK
Abkhazia holds first 'real' poll
Voter at polling station in Sukhumi
All candidates in the vote back full independence
Votes are being counted in Georgia's breakaway Abkhazia region after the first contested presidential election.

Reports suggest more than 60% of the 120,000 people registered for the vote took part.

Five candidates are vying to succeed Vladislav Ardzinba, the leader since Abkhazia declared itself independent more than a decade ago.

Its independence is not recognised internationally and Georgia's president has dismissed the vote as illegitimate.

But inside Abkhazia itself, the population sees these elections as a turning point, says the BBC's Sarah Rainsford in the capital Sukhumi.

There were chaotic scenes at some polling stations as eager voters struggled to grasp the new rules, our correspondent says.

However there were no reports of any major violations.

Abkhazia was once a paradise for Soviet holidaymakers, nestled between the Caucasus Mountains and the Black Sea.

Ominous shadow

Today the region lies largely in ruins, with the scars of the fierce fight with Georgia everywhere.

For a decade Abkhazia has been ruled by the man who led the battle for independence - Vladislav Ardzinba, who is prohibited from seeking another term.

Life has improved little, but his status as war hero placed him beyond reproach, our correspondent says.

Now many believe they have the chance to move forward, but a shadow hangs over the vote.

Georgia's new President, Mikhail Saakashvili, now says it is his life's aim to return Abkhazia to central control.

There is also concern the vote might be rigged for the candidate backed by Moscow. If that is the case, then many warn this first democratic vote could end in civil unrest.

Abkhaz deputy foreign minister Maxim Grinjia hopes these elections will offer an alternative.

"If Abkhazia will prove that it is a real democratic state with democratic principles and if we prove to the international community that recognising Abkhazia will serve as stability in the Caucasus, I think the international community will think twice before saying that Abkhazia still has to be part of Georgia because bringing back Abkhazia to Georgia will cause another conflict," he says.

Watch a video report from Abkhazia

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