KARABULAK - War-weary Chechens went to polling stations in their battered cities and in sprawling refugee camps Sunday to vote in a constitutional referendum that the Kremlin portrays as a step toward restoring stability in the republic after nearly a decade of bloodshed and lawlessness.
Six hours after the voting began, the head of Chechnya's Moscow-backed administration, Akhmad Kadyrov, said more than 50 percent of the 540,000 eligible voters had cast their ballots - the level needed for the referendum to be valid.
Among the voters were more than 90 percent of about 28,000 Russian soldiers who are permanently stationed in Chechnya and were eligible to vote, the ITAR-Tass news agency reported, citing a deputy commander of federal forces, Col. Sergei Yakushev. Other officials have said 38,000 servicemen were eligible.
Although some troops pulled out in a well-publicized withdrawal shortly before the referendum, Russia maintains a massive military presence in Chechnya and rebels mount attacks almost daily. Six polling stations were attacked overnight, and six Russian servicemen were killed and 12 wounded over the previous 24 hours, a Chechen administration official said on condition of anonymity Sunday.
Two polling booths have were set up in the neighboring republic of Ingushetia, where tens of thousands of Chechen refugees live, too fearful to return home.
At the camp in Karabulak, Chechen music blared from loudspeakers in an attempt to create a festive atmosphere. But many of the refugees regarded the process bleakly.
"It's like feasting during the plague. Music is on ... they should have stopped the war instead," said 40-year-old refugee Marika Akhmadova, who said she would not vote.
Some who cast ballots said they did so as much to keep their spirits up as out of any belief that the referendum will help restore order.
"It's impossible to live without hope; that's why I came here. If they take away my hope, there will be noting but death for me," said refugee Roza Alkhazurova.
The plebiscite asked voters to approve a constitution that cements Chechnya's status as part of the Russian Federation and legislation setting the stage for future presidential and parliamentary elections.
The Kremlin and the Moscow-appointed Chechen administration campaigned tirelessly, portraying the constitution as a key step toward bringing life back to normal in the region.
"I consider today's event very important in the life of the republic ... the people are expressing their political will," voter Lechi Magomedov, who came to a polling station in the Chechen capital Grozny neatly attired in a necktie, said on state-controlled Channel 1 television.
Russian President Vladimir Putin made a personal appeal in a broadcast shown on Chechen television, and in the run-up to the vote, the government pulled out a small contingent of troops and suggested an amnesty for some fighters might be possible.
But many key questions remain unresolved in the package the Chechens are being offered, including how much autonomy Chechnya will be given or even when elections will be held.
Critics have argued that a new constitution alone cannot end the war and cannot take the place of negotiations with rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov, who has portrayed the vote as a last stand by a frustrated Russian government.
Human rights groups have also questioned the legitimacy of any vote held in conditions of war. In the past week, polling stations - most housed in Chechen schools - have come under regular arson, grenade and gunfire attacks.
Balian Hrair, the leader of a fact-finding team the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe sent to Chechnya, said both "the organization and conduct of the referendum were not without shortcomings," the Interfax news agency reported.
Security concerns kept some key observer organizations away.
Security was heavy Sunday. Troops and police with assault rifles guarded Grozny polling places, and Interior Ministry troops ringed the Karabulak refugee camp.
Russian troops fought an unsuccessful 1994-96 war against the rebels. Afterward, Chechnya was functionally independent and plunged into lawlessness. Troops returned in 1999 after rebels raided a neighboring Russian region and after a deadly series of apartment house bombings in Russian cities.