Copy of PTI28-11-2020_000132B-1606575661098
People wait to cast their votes at a polling booth during the first phase of the District Development Council (DDC) elections, in Hariganiwan area of Gund in Ganderbal district of central Kashmir, Saturday. Image Credit: PTI

Srinagar: Voters in Indian Kashmir went to the polls Saturday amid a heavy security presence in the first direct elections in the region since the government stripped its semi-autonomy last year.

Under high alert for attacks by separatist militants, dozens of police and paramilitaries carrying machine guns surrounded each voting station while the army kept up street patrols.

Observers said only small numbers braved the security, coronavirus fears and snow-covered terrain to elect members of their local councils. Voting is to be held over eight days up to December 19 with the count to start three days later.

At a polling booth in the Kashmir valley, Faizi, 70, told AFP she had voted “to facilitate development work, like paving the roads.”

Two soldiers were killed in an ambush blamed on militants in the main city Srinagar on Thursday.

Thermal scanners were set up at polling booths and staff handed out facemasks and hand sanitiser as precautions against the coronavirus.

While the local councils have only limited powers, several Kashmir political parties, including the influential National Conference and Peoples Democratic Party have formed an alliance to campaign for the restoration of the region’s political autonomy.

The alliance has accused the government of harassing its candidates while helping those from the BJP. The local election commission denied the allegations.