- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 22, 2009

PATNA, INDIA (AP) - Suspected communist rebels freed nearly 300 train passengers unharmed after keeping them hostage for almost five hours at a railway station in eastern India on Wednesday, a day before the second phase of national elections that the guerrillas have vowed to disrupt.

After releasing the passengers, the nearly 250 suspected rebels who stopped the train left without a confrontation with security forces, said senior police official Hemant Toppo.

The hijacking _ which took place in a Maoist rebel stronghold about 560 miles (900 kilometers) east of New Delhi _ 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 called on the public to boycott the national election and a pamphlet left at the attacked government office described the vote as “a fake exercise.”

“Strengthen revolutionary forces. You will pay with your lives if you participate in these elections,” it read.

The first phase of the 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.

No casualties were reported 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. 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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