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Page last updated at 11:54 GMT, Monday, 17 November 2008

Unusual rush of voters in Kashmir

Voters queue outside a polling station in Ajas, in Bandipora constituency in Indian-administered Kashmir on November 17, 2008

In Indian-administered Kashmir, there has been an unusually strong turnout in the first phase of elections for a new state government.

Queues of hundreds of voters formed from early morning in the Muslim-dominated Kashmir valley, defying a boycott called by separatist groups.

Voters have also come out in strength in the Hindu-majority Jammu region.

Meanwhile, troops fired teargas shells and used batons to break up anti-poll protests in the Bandipora area.

Correspondents say that the turnout in Muslim-majority constituencies was just over 50%, slightly less than elections in 2002, with many Muslims taking part even though many do not accept Indian rule in their troubled state.

The election is being seen as a stern test for Indian rule of the disputed Himalayan region.

In recent months there have been huge pro-independence demonstrations in Kashmir which were met with force by the security forces, leaving many dead.

And dozens of separatist leaders have been detained to prevent them leading protests against the poll.

Voting is being held in seven phrases, lasting until 24 December. Counting of votes will take place on 28 December.

'Crowded'

The BBC's Altaf Hussain in Bandipora says the boycott call had little impact in the Bandipora and Sonawari constituencies.

Indian paramilitary soldier in Srinagar
The security presence in Srinagar and other parts of Kashmir is high

"Unusually large numbers" of voters have turned up to cast their ballots in Ajas village, in Bandipora, in the Muslim-majority Kashmir valley, he says.

The voters included men and women and they all said they had come to vote by choice, our correspondent reports, and were not deterred by the chilly weather. "The polling centre in Ajas was so crowded that we could not enter it."

One voter, Ali Mohammad, told the BBC: "We support azaadi (independence from India), but elections are important for the day-to-day administration. We need a government."

Meanwhile, security forces fired teargas shells and used batons to break up stone-pelting protests in Bandipora.

In one place, about 100 protesters held a march, chanting anti-India and pro-freedom slogans. Police and paramilitary troops used batons to disperse them.

Brisk polling was reported in the three constituencies of Poonch district in the Hindu-majority Jammu region.

Enthusiastic voters queued up since the morning to cast their votes early, the BBC's Binoo Joshi from Jammu reported.

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The BBC's Damian Grammaticas visits a polling station in Bandipura

Security was tight across the state with armed soldiers and policemen deployed on every road and at almost every junction in the Muslim-majority Kashmir valley.

Half a million troops provided a massive security blanket.

Over the summer hundreds of thousands of Kashmiri Muslims staged some of the biggest protests in a generation against Indian-rule.

The row began after the state government allotted a plot of land to a Hindu religious shrine trust.

Following violent protests, the government revoked the land transfer order.

This led to violent protests in the Jammu region too.

Police broke up the demonstrations in the valley and the Jammu region and dozens of people were killed, many of them unarmed protesters.

The authorities have jailed or put under house arrest up to 100 separatist leaders who have called for a boycott of the vote.

They asked their supporters to march on polling stations.

The BBC's Damian Grammaticas in Srinagar says India is hoping the election will help restore its battered credibility here.

Depending on the number of people who heed the call to shun the poll, the legitimacy of India's rule over Kashmir may well be questioned, our correspondent says.

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