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CNN, May 23, 1996, Web posted at: 9:30 a.m. EDT (1330 GMT)
Soldiers herd Kashmiris to polls

Protesters dispersed by police

BARAMULA, India (CNN) -- Soldiers roused many villagers and townspeople from their homes soon after dawn Thursday to vote in the first elections in seven years in the predominantly Muslim Jammu-Kashmir state.

Many voters complained of being forced to participate in a government they don't support. At stake are six seats in the 545-member parliament in New Delhi. It's the first election since a campaign for independence from Hindu-dominated India turned violent in 1989.

"The army came early in the morning and dragged people from their houses. But we gathered all the men, women, boys and girls to come here. We will not vote," said Mohammed Safi, a pharmaceuticals salesman in Sopore.

"We don't want to be with India. They have destroyed our lives. We want only freedom," he said. "These are fake elections."

The soldiers escorted the Kashmiris to polling stations. Security forces also visited mosques, telling people to vote after morning prayers.

"They said if we do not vote, they will beat us," Gulan Mohidin said.

Police wielding clubs clashed with demonstrators. The officers fired shots in the air, launched tear gas and charged protesters in Baramula, about 35 miles northwest of the Himalayan state's summer capital of Srinagar.

No one was seriously injured. Witnesses said protesters stormed polling booths, prompting police to use force.

"We do not want elections, we want freedom," screamed a group of women.

Separatists' stance

Separatists had vowed to disrupt the election as part of their fight against Indian rule. Pakistan, which claims Kashmir, denies charges by India that it is arming the militants.

Officials predict a turnout of 25 percent, a dramatic increase from the 5 percent who voted in 1989. Thursday's election will not affect parliament's balance of power.

India portrayed the election as evidence that Kashmiris are weary of war and that the insurrection is waning. Voting officials said security forces were deployed to some 2,000 polling booths to combat the militant threats.

Two blasts rocked Jammu-Kashmir in the two days leading up to the election. Separatist groups claimed responsibility for Tuesday's attack, and police suspect separatists also were behind the second bombing.

On Wednesday, a bus explosion killed at least 20 people, including four children. A car bomb on Tuesday ripped through a crowded marketplace, killing more than 17 people.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

 

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