Maoist rebels in India briefly took more than 300 passengers hostage on a train yesterday, police said, as the insurgents stepped up attacks during the country’s general elections.
At least 200 armed rebels swooped on the train at a station in the insurgency-hit eastern state of Jharkhand and held the passengers for about four hours.
The Maoists, who say they are fighting for the rights of neglected tribal people and landless farmers, have launched a series of assaults in an apparent attempt to disrupt India’s polls.
They had called a general strike in the area and have previously used violence to enforce their call for all businesses to stay closed and for people to remain in their homes during the strike.
The train was held in Latehar district, which went to the polls last week in the first phase of the elections, with further voting in the state to be held today.
“The train has been released by the Maoists. All the passengers are safe,” senior police officer Sarvendu Thatagat said.
Latehar was hit by the Maoists during voting last Thursday, when a landmine exploded under a bus carrying paramilitary forces to a polling booth in the district, located 140km from the state capital Ranchi.
Seven soldiers and two civilians were killed in that attack.
India’s Maoist insurgency, which grew out of a peasant uprising in 1967, has been active in more than half of the country’s 29 states.
The rebels, who have been described by Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as a serious threat to national security, use the forests of Chhattisgarh State — which borders Jharkhand — as their base.
Railway spokesman A.K. Chandra told the NDTV news channel that there had been no contact with the train as the rebels had cut communication links.
Indian television reported that as many as 700 people had been on board.
Helicopters flew overhead as security forces rushed to the scene, but the Maoists retreated before any rescue operation was launched, police said.
Polling in areas affected by the Maoist insurgency has been staggered over several phases to ensure adequate deployment of security personnel.
Across eastern India, the killed at least 16 people during the first phase of voting.