Nagorno-Karabakh holds presidential election amid violent dispute with Azerbaijan

The Armenian-controlled breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh is holding a presidential election Thursday amid a rumbling dispute with Azerbaijan over the mountainous enclave's unrecognized independence.

Pollsters and analysts say former security chief Bako Saakian tops the list of five candidates campaigning to replace the incumbent Arkady Ghukasian, who is ineligible to run after two five-year terms in office.

Saakian, 47, headed Nagorno-Karabakh's security service since 2001, resigning in June to stand in the election. He is running as an independent and is backed by the Armenian government in Yerevan.

This is the fourth presidential election in the impoverished territory inside Azerbaijan that has been controlled by Armenian and ethnic Armenian forces since a shaky 1994 cease-fire ended one of the bloodiest conflicts that followed the Soviet collapse.

The six-year war killed 30,000 people and drove more than 1 million from their homes, including many of the region's ethnic Azeris. Today, it remains one of the region's "frozen" conflicts.

Azerbaijan, which has rejected the vote as having no legal meaning, is still at loggerheads with Armenia despite more than a decade of coaxing from international mediators led by the United States, Russia and France to resolve the region's status.

No country has recognized the independence of the mostly agricultural region of 146,000 people, which has faced a steady brain drain and dire economic problems despite financial aid from Armenia and the Armenian diaspora.

Saakian has said that international recognition of Kosovo as an independent state would pave the way for acceptance of Nagorno-Karabakh's sovereignity.

Polls close at 8 p.m. (1500 GMT). Preliminary results of the election, in which 91,000 people are eligible to vote, are expected Friday.