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Land mine blast kills 5 polling officials in India

PATNA, India – Suspected communist rebels blew up a jeep carrying polling officials in eastern India, killing five people in violence that marred voting in India’s parliamentary elections, police said Friday.

Thursday’s land mine attack in Bihar state came just after voting ended in the eastern strongholds of communist guerrillas who have fought for decades for the rights of the poor.

Four police officers and one election official died and the jeep driver was hospitalized with serious injuries in Muzzafarpur district, nearly 45 miles (75 kilometers) east of the Bihar state capital of Patna, said police official Neelmani, who uses one name. They were returning to their headquarters with electronic voting machines and other election materials.

The attackers then fled the area, Neelmani said.

A brutal heat wave sweeping much of India, together with threats of violence from the communist guerillas, kept millions away from the polls during Thursday’s second round of voting. India’s five-phase voting will end May 13.

Results are expected May 16. With more than 700 million voters, India normally holds staggered elections for logistic and security reasons.

Polls indicate neither the Congress party, which leads the governing coalition, nor the main opposition, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, will win enough seats in the 543-seat lower house of Parliament to rule on their own.

That means the election will likely leave India with a shaky coalition government cobbled together from across the political spectrum — a situation giving the next prime minister little time to deal with a growing number of challenges like the economic crisis.

Turnout, initially high as voters headed to polling stations early Thursday, slowed to a trickle as summertime temperatures touched 111 degrees Fahrenheit (44 Celsius.) The intense heat caused the death of one election official and hospitalization of another in the eastern state of Orissa, said Prabhakar Sahu, a spokesman for the election commission.

“The heat wave is so intense how can one go out?” said Suresh Sharma, an engineer from the northern city of Allahabad. “I wanted to cast my vote, but I fear if I go I may fall ill.”

Maoist rebels threatened to kill citizens participating in the election, which they dismiss as a “fake exercise.”

At least 17 people were killed allegedly by insurgents in the first round of voting last week in central and eastern India.

Also Thursday, a magistrate and a police officer were wounded in an attack on their jeep in Jharkhand state, said state spokesman S.P. Pradhan

Separately, nearly 20 suspected rebels burned four jeeps loaded with voting machines and other election materials outside a polling station in Jharkhand state, said police superintendent Navin Kumar Singh.

Many in the state said the threats persuaded them not to vote.

“I don’t want to annoy them. They can harm me and my business,” said Anil Agarwal, a businessman in the town of Giridh. Officials said turnout in Jharkhand was about 50 percent, and only 45 percent in the neighboring state of Bihar.

In Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, turnout was just 43 percent, said Anuj Kumar Bishnoi, the chief electoral officer.

The exception to the trend was the southern state of Andhra Pradesh where turnout was 65 percent. Much of this was attributed to the debut foray into politics by the region’s biggest film star.

Venkateswara Rao, a businessman, said he decided to vote for the first time to support Chiranjeevi, a superstar of regional language Telugu films, who uses just one name.

“I am inspired by the presence of Chiranjeevi. I want him and his party to win,” Rao said as he waited for his turn to cast his ballot.

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