SRINAGAR // Large crowds voted in some towns in Indian Kashmir today while protesters clashed with police in others as state elections began amid boycott calls by Muslim separatists. The elections - to be held in phases over the next few weeks in an attempt to avert violence - come after some of the worst protests against Indian rule in the country's only Muslim-majority state. They also follow a clampdown on separatist leaders who oppose the polls. "You can't have free and fair elections in the presence of hundreds of thousands" of occupying forces, said Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, a key separatist leader who has been under house arrest for three days. Separatists say the elections will only entrench New Delhi's hold on the troubled Himalayan region. Anti-India sentiment runs deep in Kashmir, where most people favour independence from India or a merger with Pakistan. The region is divided between the two countries and both claim it in its entirety. Despite the boycott call, long lines of voters stretched around polling booths in several towns north of the capital of Srinagar. Guraz district had the heaviest early turnout with more than 25 per cent of eligible voters casting their ballots by noon, said BR Sharma, the state's chief electoral officer. But in many areas, turnout was so low that paramilitary soldiers and police outnumbered voters. In Bandipore, a town 65km north of Srinagar, police fired tear gas at dozens of protesters chanting "No election, no selection, we want freedom," local police official Mohammed Yousuf said. Two people were detained and one was injured, he said. In Baharpora, 30km north of Srinagar, more than two dozen men who refused to vote gathered outside the polling booths. "We will not barter the martyrs' blood for the vote," said Bashir Ahmed, 22, a taxi driver. "Those who vote are traitors." More than 30 separatist leaders who called for an election boycott have been detained in recent days under a law that allows police to hold people for up to two years without trial. They were held for advocating "secession, breach of peace and intimidating people not to vote," said Mr Srinivas, a senior police officer. "We'll not allow anybody to campaign against the elections," he said. The boycott was expected to be widely supported, particularly following the recent demonstrations, the largest pro-independence protests across Indian Kashmir in two decades. They were met with a tough clampdown by government forces, and at least 48 people were killed. "I have always voted in the past elections, but the way the government suppressed the recent demonstrations has put me off and I am not participating in the elections now," Mohammed Abdullah, a 55-year-old vegetable vendor, said yesterday in Srinagar, which will cast ballots next month. The elections are being held in seven phases through to Dec 24. Each phase will be staggered so that the government can deploy thousands of security forces in each area in an attempt to prevent a repeat of violence during elections in 2002 in which dozens died. Police said they feared more unrest, particularly from militant separatist groups, although insurgents have vowed not to use violence to enforce the boycott. Campaigning was mostly peaceful. Militant separatist groups have been fighting since 1989 to end Indian rule. The uprising and subsequent Indian crackdown have killed about 68,000 people, most of them civilians. India and Pakistan have fought two of their three wars over Kashmir since they were created in the partition of the subcontinent at independence from Britain in 1947. Relations improved after a peace process began in 2004, but have faltered recently.