Agence France Presse

Srinagar, January 1:

Indian authorities announced today that municipal elections, the first in 25 years, will be held next month in insurgency-hit Kashmir. The polls to municipal corporations, councils and committees will take place in several phases, with the summer capital Srinagar and winter capital Jammu voting on February 1, the chief electoral office said. Voting in the violence-racked southern districts of Poonch and Rajouri will be held on February 17, the last phase of balloting. No elections have been held to the local bodies in Kashmir in the past 25 years.

Kashmir is in the grip of a 15-year-old insurgency against Indian rule that has left more than 40,000 people dead by official count. Separatists put the toll between 80,000 and 100,000.

Kashmiri rebels fighting to secede the region from India and join it with Pakistan or remain independent have always opposed Indian-held elections.

Separatist politicians have also boycotted all elections held since the outbreak of insurgency in 1989. Federal elections have continued to be held in the Himalayan region. Nuclear-armed rivals India and Pakistan, who each hold part of Kashmir and both claim it in full, have in the last year launched a peace process that has reduced violence in the region. None of the one dozen rebel groups active in Kashmir reacted immediately to the election announcement.

More than 850 people died in Kashmir during two-month Kashmir state elections in September/October 2002. Parliamentary elections in May passed off with relatively low levels of violence and the new government has pledged to work hard for peace.