- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 22, 2009

PATNA, INDIA (AP) - Police say suspected communist rebels have freed more than 250 train passengers after keeping them hostage for nearly five hours at a rail station in eastern India.

The hijacking Wednesday came a day ahead of parliamentary polling that the guerrillas have vowed to disrupt.

Hemant Toppo, superintendent of police, says all the passengers were released unharmed in the small town of Hehegarah in Jharkhand state.

The hijacking was one of a series of attacks that included an explosion at another railway station, a blast at a government office, and the slaying of a truck driver in the neighboring state of Bihar.

The rebels have asked people in the region to boycott the polling and authorities suspect the attacks were an attempt to disrupt voting Thursday.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP’s earlier story is below.

PATNA, India (AP) _ Nearly 250 suspected Maoist rebels hijacked a train with hundreds of passengers aboard in a remote area in eastern India on Wednesday, a day ahead of parliamentary polling that the guerrillas have vowed to disrupt.

The standoff over the train, which the rebels forced to remain at a station, was one of a series of attacks Wednesday that included a pre-dawn explosion at another railway station, a blast at a government office, and the slaying of a truck driver in the neighboring state of Bihar.

The rebels have asked people in the region to boycott the polling and authorities suspect the attacks were an attempt to disrupt voting scheduled for Thursday.

The first phase of the nationwide voting last week saw more than three dozen attacks by Maoist fighters in rural areas across eastern and central India. The violence left at least 17 people dead _ including police, soldiers, polling officials and civilians _ and three election officials were kidnapped.

The rebels, called Naxalites, say they are inspired by Chinese revolutionary leader Mao Zedong. They have been fighting for more than three decades in several Indian states, demanding land and jobs for agricultural laborers and the poor. They generally do not speak to the media and instead communicate via pamphlets or statements sent to newspaper offices.

Authorities have deployed tens of thousands of security forces across India to prevent violence during the elections, which are to end May 13.

Police reinforcements were being rushed to the small, forested town of Hehegarah in Jharkhand state where rebels refused to let a crowded train leave the station, said Hemant Toppo, a senior police official. The region, nearly 560 miles (900 kilometers) east of New Delhi, is a stronghold of Maoist rebels.

There were no immediate reports of any casualties at Hehegarah, Toppo said.

There was also no casualties in the explosion at a second railway station in Jharkhand, said state official S.P. Pradhan, or at the government office in Aurangabad in Bihar, said Neelmani, a local police official who uses only one name.

The suspected rebels set ablaze at least six trucks near Gaya, a town in Bihar, and shot and killed one driver who tried to escape, said Neelmani.

On Thursday, millions of Indians will vote in 13 of the 28 states, including parts of Bihar and Jharkhand, in the second phase of the elections.

With more than 1.2 billion citizens, India normally holds staggered elections for logistic and security reasons.

Results of the massive election, which will use more than 1.3 million electronic voting machines in 828,804 polling stations, are expected May 16. According to the constitution, a new parliament has to be in place by June 2.

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