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Russia: High Turnout Reported As Chechnya Vote Continues

Grozny, 27 January 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Polling stations across Chechnya are reported to be crowded with voters today as the breakaway republic elects a president and 63-member legislature.

Correspondents say people began lining up outside polling stations in the capital Grozny and in outlying villages at the crack of dawn. The general mood is said to be upbeat and n-o major disturbances have been reported so far. Chechnya's Electoral Commission this afternoon extended the voting period by two hours until 2200 local time.

Top Chechen commander Aslan Maskhadov, a leading presidential contendor, said that the high voter turnout showed Chechens "understand the future depends" on today's vote. He pledged, if elected, to "bring order" to Chechnya and to develop normal ties with Russia. Current Chechen leader and rival presidential candidate Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev said as he voted that Chechnya "is no longer part of the Russian Federatyion." He said Chechens were voting for a "free, independent and prosperous future."

In Moscow, Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin called on everyone to remain calm until the end of voting. He said that once the results are known, Russia will sit down with the Chechens "and begin joint work." Top Russian cabinet officials will meet tomorrow to assess the election's outcome.

Moscow sent thousands of troops into Chechnya in an unsuccessful attempt to quash the republic's independence drive. After 21 months of fierce fighting, Russia struck a peace deal with the separatists last August and withdrew its troops. A decision on Chechnya's political status was officially deferred for five years.