According to the electoral commission 560,000 registered voters have a choice of seven candidates in a poll which Moscow pledged would be free and fair.

But critics say, and many Chechens believe, that the election is heavily weighted in favour of Ahmad Kadyrov, Chechnya's Moscow-appointed administrator, whose chief rivals were either removed or forced out of the race.

The streets of Grozny were uncharacteristically quiet on Sunday morning, with many families leaving the city amid rumours of attacks to disrupt the vote.

Elsa Ibragimova, 23, a mother of three who is living in a temporary refugee centre in Grozny after returning from a tent camp in neighbouring Ingushetia, said she had voted for Kadyrov because she was given no other choice.

I don't know (why I voted for him)," she said. "In all of Grozny there are only Kadyrov posters. We don't even know the last names of the other candidates."

Prominent

Kadyrov's name is prominent on the green ballot paper listing the candidates, placed in the centre and accompanied by a resume that is twice as long as that of the others.

Husayn Datigayev, 62, cast his vote for Shamil Burayev, one of Kadyrov's opponents. "If we elect a worthy president, then things will get better for us," he said.

But 50-year-old Umar Khanisov said he and his entire family had chosen Kadyrov in the hope that his election would bring order and peace to the war-ravaged republic.

Kadyrov was appointed chief administrator by the Kremlin in 2000. However, his popularity had since plummetted and his hold on the republic is tenuous, with little or no improvement to ordinary Chechen lives, daily attacks on pro-Russian officials and rampant kidnappings blamed on his armed militia as often as on the Chechen fighters.

Pledge to resist

Maskhadov has vowed to rid
Chechnya of the 'occupiers' 

Leader of the Chechen fighters, Aslan Maskhadov vowed in an interview with French daily Le Monde published on Friday that "we will rid our country of the occupiers and put an end to relations between Russia and the Chechen state, no matter how difficult the task".

Elected in 1997 in an internationally recognised poll, Maskhadov was barred from running in the present ballot although he had said he had no intention of taking part in what he considered a sham.

The conflict in Chechnya has raged on for four years with tens of thousands of civilians having been killed. Many more have been made refugees trying to flee the fighting.

Russia has officially lost 5000 soldiers - 12,000 according to human rights groups.