Polling stations guarded by troops and armoured vehicles opened on Sunday at 8am (0500 GMT) and were to close at 8pm with preliminary results expected late on Sunday or early on Monday.

Officials said almost 600,000 people, including 34,000 Russian soldiers stationed in the volatile Caucasus province, were registered. About 350 candidates are running for the 18-seat Republican Council and the 40-seat People's Assembly.

 

Candidates include five officers with the Russian armed forces and numerous officials with the pro-Russian Chechen administration.

 

The Kremlin and the local administration it backs in Grozny have been praising Sunday's vote for much of this year, and Russian President Vladimir Putin and other senior officials have characterised it as proof of their assertion that life was returning to normal in Chechnya.

 

Standing in elections

 

Speaking to Aljazeera's correspondent in Moscow, Chechen President Ali Alkhanov said that former separatist fighters' leaders were standing in the elections, having given up weapons in an amnesty.

 

"Committing crimes and carrying out terrorist operations is something that nowadays takes place in most countries, including Arab, European and others," Alkhanov said.  

 

"Committing crimes and carrying out terrorist operations is something that nowadays takes place in most countries, including Arab, European and others"

Ali Alkhanov,
Chechen President

"It is the same case in our country. However, this has not prevented us from taking action. We have decided to go on in the settlement process and carry out parliamentary elections."

 

Sunday's vote is the fourth in two years, following a constitutional referendum in March 2003, and two presidential elections, in October 2003 and August 2004.

 

Heavy security

 

Security has been heavily reinforced in fear of possible attacks by Chechen separatist fighters.

 

The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) has declined to send observers to monitor the poll, citing various reasons including security concerns.

 

Security was reinforced in fear of
attacks from separatist fighters

The Russian authorities said 23,000 observers, either Russian or from other former Soviet republics, were monitoring the vote, which at least 70 foreign correspondents were covering from Chechnya.

 

The walls of Grozny were covered with huge posters of pro-Kremlin party United Russia, saying: "For the good of the people and the honour of the Chechen republic."

 

Posters of other parties, including the Communists and the liberal SPS party, could also be seen.

 

Chechen videotape

 

Abd al-Halim Sadulayev, the Chechen fighters' leader, appeared in a videotape obtained by Aljazeera.

 

"This is not the first time Russia has carried out this sarcastic play on Chechen lands," Sadulayev said.

 

"This is not the first time Russia has carried out this sarcastic play on Chechen lands"

Abd al-Halim Sadulayev,
Chechen fighters' leader

"We know how their democratic elections were carried out before, when they appointed Kadirov as the first Chechen President ... as if no elections had previously been carried out and Chechnya had no president before.

 

"They [Russians] attempt to add new points to the Chechen constitution, stating that the Chechen Republic wants to be a part of the federal Russia

 

"Of course, this has not been mentioned in the previous constitution. The Russians have invented this idea."

 

Sadulayev said President Alkhanov had been appointed "to serve their (Russia's) personal interests".

 

Economic opportunity

 

Throughout the province, residents said they were less interested in who won the elections than in seeing the process lead to better security and more economic opportunity.

 

Akhmed Gilihanov, a farmer in the western Chechen village of Bratskoye, told AFP: "If the deputies are going to work, something will change.

 

"The most important thing is for people to have work and for the banditism to end. I want people to live like they do elsewhere in Russia."

 

Russian troops entered Chechnya in October 1999 to try to re-establish control having been defeated in a first war against separatist guerrillas in 1994-96.

Although major clashes have become rare, Russian forces and local Chechen allies continue to suffer casualties almost daily.