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OCCUPIED SRINAGAR: Thousands of troops guarded polling stations as Indian Illegally Occupied Jammu & Kashmir on Saturday held its first direct elections since the government stripped its semi-autonomy last year.

On high alert for attacks by separatist militants, dozens of police and paramilitaries with machine guns watched outside each voting station while army patrols toured the streets.

The Himalayan region, which is also claimed by Pakistan, has been under heavy security since the ruling Hindu-nationalist government imposed direct rule in August 2019.

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

But officials claimed nearly 52 percent of the 700,000 eligible voters cast ballots during the first of the eight days of polling, braving the security, coronavirus fears and snow-covered terrain to elect local council members. Results are expected on December 22.

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

Top election official K.K. Sharma told reporters polling had been “peaceful barring a small incident of stone pelting" by protesters in the southern Kashmir valley.

While the councils have only limited powers, several Kashmir political parties, including the influential National Conference and Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) formed an alliance to use the election to campaign for the restoration of the illegally occupied region's political autonomy.

The alliance pointed out that the government was harassing its candidates while helping those from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.

On Friday, illegal authorities restricted PDP leader Mehbooba Mufti to her home and police stopped reporters from attending a press conference she called.

Mufti was among scores of political leaders held under house arrest for months after the clampdown.