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Clashes Erupt As Kashmiris Vote In State Polls

SRINAGAR, India (Reuters) -- Sporadic clashes broke out between Indian police and separatists after voting opened on December 24 in Kashmir's main city, Srinagar, in the crucial last phase of state polls in the disputed region.

The lead-up to the vote had been overshadowed by heightened tension between India and Pakistan, which both claim Kashmir, after last month's Mumbai attacks. India deployed thousands of police and troops in case of separatist violence in Kashmir.

In Srinagar, the heart of a nearly 20-year separatist campaign against Indian rule, police said at least nine people were injured when police clashed with dozens of stone-throwing protesters in three areas. Two police were among the injured. Police responded with batons and teargas.

"Barring a few places, voting is going on smoothly," senior police officer Mohammed Amin told Reuters in Srinagar.

Muslim-majority Srinagar, Kashmir's summer capital, and the Hindu-majority city of Jammu, the state's winter capital, both went to the polls on December 24.

Kuldeep Khoda, director-general of Kashmir police, told reporters that intelligence intercepts indicated "terrorists and separatists" would try to disrupt voting.

On December 23, Indian police said they had arrested three militants, one of them a Pakistani soldier, for allegedly planning a suicide attack during the vote. Pakistan denied the man was a serving soldier.

In Srinagar, police and soldiers armed with assault rifles blocked off lanes with razor wire and iron barricades, and sniffer dogs searched polling booths for bombs.

Kashmiri separatists, many of them in jail, have called for a boycott of the seven-stage polls, saying India portrays voting as an endorsement of its rule over the disputed Himalayan region, and have urged people to march to the UN office in Srinagar.

But a high turnout in the six rounds of the election so far has encouraged Indian authorities, despite the scattered clashes between anti-poll protesters and government forces.

"I am voting for better government," 30-year-old hotelier Imtiyaz Ahmad said before entering a polling booth. "The government will give us security, better administration. The freedom [of Kashmir] is a separate issue."

Polling stations in Srinagar saw only a trickle of voters in the first hours after they opened, witnesses and officials said.

Nearly 1.7 million voters are eligible to cast their votes in the last phase. At least 393 candidates are running for 87 assembly seats across the state, with 21 in total up for grabs in Jammu and Srinagar.

Police said they had been conducting raids in the entire state over the past few days to thwart trouble.

Cross-Border Tensions

The arrest of the three militants came as nuclear-armed rivals India and Pakistan continue to trade barbs in the fallout from last month's Mumbai attacks that killed 179 people.

India blames the assault on the Pakistan-based militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba, which was set up to fight Indian rule in Kashmir and which has been linked to Pakistan's powerful Inter-Services Intelligence military spy agency.

Overall violence has fallen significantly across Kashmir since India and Pakistan began peace talks in 2004, although New Delhi has imposed a "pause" in that dialogue since the Mumbai attack on November 26-29.

Officials say more than 47,000 people have been killed in nearly two decades of violence involving Indian troops and Muslim militants in Kashmir, which was hit by massive anti-India protests earlier this year.