By Greg Torode and Sharon Tam
HONG KONG, Nov 24 (Reuters) - Voting at district council elections in Hong Kong began peacefully on Sunday morning, with no signs of a major police presence at polling booths monitored by Reuters despite nearly six months of sometimes violent unrest in the Chinese-controlled city.
Brutal attacks on candidates have thrust Hong Kong's lowest-tier government onto the international stage, with the district elections seen as an important barometer of support for leader Carrie Lam's embattled administration.
The South China Morning Post on Friday, citing a senior police source, said riot police for the first time would guard all polling stations and almost all officers in the 31,000 strong force would be on duty.
But Reuters witnesses at the rural district of Yuen Long near the Chinese border, Taikoo Shing on Hong Kong island, Wong Tai Sin in Kowloon and in the New Territories town of Sha Tin said there was little obvious police presence as voting was about to start at 7:30 a.m. (2330 GMT on Saturday).
Chan, 31, who was in front of the queue at the Fung Kam Sports Centre in Yuen Long said she came early because she was expecting a big turnout.
"I have not seen an election like this before, but because of the situation it is important to vote .. .and I know many people feel like me," said Chan, who works in sales.
She said she grew up in Yuen Long but did not want to reveal any political allegiances. As she spoke, election officials prepared the ballot box in the middle of a basketball court. A lone police officer watched them.
The Fung Kam polling station is one of the closest to the Yuen Long railway station where suspected triad gangsters attacked anti government protesters and commuters on July 21.
A record 1,104 people are running for 452 district seats and a record 4.1 million Hong Kong people have enrolled to vote for district councillors, who control some local spending, and whose daily decisionmaking spans a range of neighbourhood issues including recycling, transport and public healthcare.
Some of the seats that were once uncontested, and dominated by pro-Beijing candidates, are now being fought for by young pro-democracy activists.
One of the candidates running in Sha Tin is Jimmy Sham of Civil Human Rights Front, organiser of some of the mass anti-government rallies in recent months who was beaten by men with hammers in October.
The protests started over a now-withdrawn bill that would have allowed people to be sent to China for trial, but which soon evolved into calls for full democracy, posing the biggest popular challenge to Chinese President Xi Jinping since he came to power in 2012.
U.S. national security adviser Robert O'Brien said on Saturday that an initial trade agreement with China is still possible by the end of the year, but warned Washington would not turn a blind eye to what happens in Hong Kong.
The comments add to growing worries that a Chinese crackdown on anti-government protests in Hong Kong could further complicate the efforts by the United States and China to end a prolonged trade war that has roiled global markets and undercut global economic growth forecasts. (Reporting by Greg Torode, Sharon Tam, Sarah Wu and Aleksander Solum; Writing by Jamie Freed; Editing by Sandra Maler)