April 17, 2009 in Nation/World

Deadly attacks mar start of India’s general elections

Mark Magnier Los Angeles Times
Associated Press photo

People stand in line to cast their votes at a polling station in Varanasi, India, on Thursday during the first phase of India’s general elections – a monthlong process.
(Full-size photo)

What’s at stake

India’s staggered, five-phase national election will choose 543 lawmakers for the nation’s lower house of parliament. More than 700 million people are eligible to vote. The counting of the votes is scheduled for May 16.

NEW DELHI – India’s first day of voting in a monthlong election got off to a rocky start Thursday as militants attacked polling efforts in four states, killing at least 17 people.

India’s multiphase general election, as ambitious and complex as the nation hosting it, is a massive undertaking involving 714 million eligible voters using 1.3 million voting booths in 823,000 polling locations.

Although India is no stranger to violence between rival political groups, the sheer scope of the balloting effort also makes elections a tempting target for groups fighting the government, seeking autonomy or keen on building publicity for their cause, analysts said.

The attacks took place in several voting districts in the eastern part of India known as the “red belt,” a stronghold for the Maoist Naxalite groups that have tried for decades to overthrow the government and establish a communist replacement. In separate incidents in Chhattisgarh state, a land mine killed five polling officials, two paramilitary soldiers died in a gunfight, and five polling stations came under fire, according to local media reports.

In neighboring Jharkhand state, six border guards, a bus driver and his assistant reportedly died on their way to an election center in another land-mine explosion. And in various incidents in Bihar and Orissa states, militants killed two security officials, opened fire on polling stations, destroyed voting machines and attacked vehicles.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has characterized Maoist violence as India’s biggest internal security threat. “The Maoist violence is a grave challenge before the country,” Ashwini Kumar, spokesman for the ruling Congress Party, said after Thursday’s attacks.

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