Pakistan's northwest tribal areas hold 1st local polls

JAMRUD, Pakistan (AP) — Pakistan's northwestern tribal areas held their first-ever provincial elections Saturday, in a region on the Afghan border that was once a stronghold for the Taliban, al-Qaida and other militant groups.

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The seven tribal areas were integrated 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, were running for sixteen seats.

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. Soldiers were deployed in and around polling stations while paramilitary troops and police patrolled sensitive areas.

Zabit Khan Afridi, a college student, was among the voters who lined up outside a polling station in Khyber district near the provincial capital, Peshawar.

"I am glad to cast my first ever vote on a historic day for tribal people... I believe the fate of tribal people is changing," Afridi said.

Residents of the tribal areas were given right to vote in 1997. Previously, only the tribal elders had the right to vote for 12 national assembly seats.

Running as an independent candidate for provincial seat from Khyber district, Bilawal Afridi said voter appeared to be high.

"We need local governments in the tribal belt to bring our people up to par with the urban population," Afridi said.

In contrast to Khyber district, voter turnout was low in the town of Mir Ali in North Waziristan. At one of the town's polling stations, only a quarter of those registered to vote had actually cast their ballots by midday. Few women made it to the polling station there.

Gul Aslam, an elderly bearded man, said people felt a "sense of participation" thanks in part to the local elections and last year's merger into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.

He said these steps would help eliminate militancy from the area, which had "ruined the lives of the tribesmen."

Some 2.8 million voters were registered for the elections, with 1,897 polling stations open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. local time amid heightened security. Around 34,000 army and paramilitary troops were deployed in the area.

Results were expected early Sunday, election officials said.

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