PATNA, India (AP) — Indians voted in the crucial third phase of national elections Thursday, with millions going to the polls in the heartland states that are essential to the main opposition Hindu nationalist party's bid to end the 10-year rule of Congress party.
Suspected Maoist rebels, who have urged a boycott, briefly disrupted voting in their strongholds in eastern Bihar state and neighboring Chhattisgarh, carrying out acts of violence despite thousands of security forces fanning out in the area.
Nearly 110 million people were eligible to vote in the third phase of the elections in 92 constituencies in 11 of India's 28 states and three federally administered union territories. The multiphase voting across the country runs until May 12, with results for the 543-seat lower house of Parliament announced May 16.
Parts of sprawling Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Haryana, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra states were among the places holding balloting on Thursday.
Hours before the voting began, Maoist insurgents blew up a jeep carrying paramilitary soldiers, killing two and wounding three others and causing a suspension in voting in some parts of eastern Bihar state, police said.
The soldiers were patrolling a forest in a rebel stronghold in Munger district when their jeep hit a land mine nearly 225 kilometers (145 miles) southeast of Patna, the state capital, police officer Jitendra Rana said.
Voting was suspended at 20 nearby polling stations because of the safety threat, Rana said, but started as scheduled in other parts of Bihar state. Election authorities are expected to hold voting in the area targeted by the rebels on another day.
The insurgents struck again hours later and briefly disrupted voting in neighboring Chhattisgarh state by firing at security forces guarding 10 polling stations in Bastar district, the Press Trust of India news agency said.
There were no casualties and the rebels fled after security forces returned fire, PTI said. The voting resumed after security forces combed the area.
The main Hindu opposition, with strong momentum on promises of a surge in economic growth, appears to be leading the race to end the Congress party's 10 years in power.
Sonia Gandhi, the governing Congress party chief, and her son Rahul Gandhi, the party's vice president, voted in the Indian capital where their party was routed in a regional election in December.
Besides the Congress party and the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, the vote is also crucial for the future of India's anti-corruption party, led by Arvind Kejriwal.
The Aam Admi Party, or Common Man's Party, scored a stunning upset in the New Delhi election, launching Kejriwal to the national stage. He has led protests and hunger strikes to highlight his fight against government corruption over the past two years. The party is contesting nearly 400 parliamentary seats.
The threat of insurgent attacks is always a shadow over Indian elections, although voting in the northeast on Monday and Wednesday was mainly peaceful.
On Wednesday, Maoist rebels killed three soldiers in a gunbattle in Chhattisgarh state a day before voting started.
In March, rebels killed 15 government soldiers and one civilian in their deadliest raid in Chhattisgarh in almost a year, ambushing dozens of troops and police guarding construction workers.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has called the rebels India's biggest internal security threat. They operate in 20 of India's 28 states and have thousands of fighters, according to the Home Ministry.