Peshwar: Pakistan’s northwestern tribal areas are holding their first-ever provincial elections, in a region along the Afghan border that was once a stronghold for the Taliban, Al Qaida and other militant groups.

The seven tribal districts were merged last year into the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Before that, the tribal areas were federally administered, and residents could only vote in the national assembly.

Sohail Khan, a spokesman for the provincial election body, said 285 candidates, including two women, are running for sixteen seats.

Some 2.8 million voters are registered for Saturday’s elections, which opened at 8am local time amid heightened security.

Pakistan claims to have cleared the tribal areas of militants in a series of military operations in recent years, but the region still sees occasional attacks.

Besides local police, the army had also been deployed in and outside the polling stations to help the administration in maintaining peaceful atmosphere in the elections.

According to an official of Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), registered voters in these areas totalled 2,801,834, of which 1,671,305 voters were male while 1,130,529 were female.

The ECP had appointed eight district returning officers, 36 assistant returning offices and 1897 presiding officers.

He said three-tier security arrangements had been made to enable the voters to exercise their right of franchise in a secure environment.

He said total 282 candidates were contesting election. He added that 28 candidates were contesting elections on seats reserved for women and non-Muslims including 22 on women seats and six on non-Muslim seats.

He said the commission had set up 1,897 polling stations out of which 482 were male, 376 were female and 1,039 were combined polling stations.

The official said that army troops were deployed outside all 1897 polling stations whereas inside and outside all 554 highly sensitive polling stations.

He said to encourage female voters to cast their votes more conveniently, female security staff was deployed at all female polling stations and female booths of all combined polling stations.

He said ECP had already directed the provincial government for installation of CCTV cameras at all booths of 1,897 polling stations and in this regard, Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) had also been issued to all concerned.