Chechnya Votes

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GROZNY, Russia: "This election is about our freedom," said Hassan Khalidov, a former Chechen independence fighter, as his countrymen headed to the polls in force Monday to elect a president and parliament. After long lines formed at some polling stations well before they opened at 7 a.m, election officials extended balloting by two hours to accommodate the heavy voter turnout. The leading Chechen candidates, all of them heroes of the guerrilla war, have campaigned on a platform of immediate independence from Russia. "We don't want independence in five or 10 years," said Aslan Maskhadov, the front-runner in the presidential race. "We think that after democratic elections, civilized elections, we need to sit down to talk with Russia." The bloody separatist war that claimed perhaps 100,000 lives on both sides ended last August, and although the last Russian troops left only a month ago, Chechens gathering at the polls today are already savoring a sense of freedom. But while Moscow has no plans to interfere with the election, Russian leaders remain adamant that Chechnya will not be allowed to secede. Democracy has come to Chechnya. But voting their minds may not guarantee the result that Chechens desire.