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200 Maoist hijackers seize train in India

Suspected communist rebels freed nearly 300 train passengers unharmed after keeping them hostage for nearly five hours at a rail station in eastern India on Wednesday.
/ Source: msnbc.com news services

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

About 200 Maoists boarded a passenger train and forced the driver to take it to Latehar district in a remote area around 100 miles west of Ranchi, the capital of Jharkhand state, before they fled into the nearby jungle.

"All the passengers have been released and they are safe," Sarvendu Tathagat, a local government official in Jharkhand, said. "They (the rebels) left the train and fled into the jungles."

India's Maoist rebels, who say they are fighting for the rights of landless laborers and poor farmers, have stepped up attacks in their strongholds in central and eastern India during the general election.

Maoists have taken over trains in past years in a show of strength, often holding them up for several hours before leaving. In 2006, a train was hijacked in Latehar and the 200 people onboard were released unharmed after one night.

'Red belt'
Maoist rebel violence marred the first stage of India's election last Thursday when five election officials were killed in a land mine blast in Chhattisgarh state. Eleven police were killed across the central and eastern "red belt."

Thousands have been killed in the Maoist insurgency which began in the late 1960s and now stretches throughout rural areas of eastern, central and southern India.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has described Maoist violence as India's biggest internal security threat. Some 500 civilians and police were killed in insurgent clashes last year.

In separate attacks, Maoist rebels blew up a railway station in Jharkhand Tuesday, disrupting train services. They also blasted a health center and a school building.

Rebels have called an indefinite strike in the region ahead of the second round of polling Thursday to protest against the killing of some villagers branded as Maoist supporters by police.

Maoists also carried out scattered attacks Wednesday, shooting dead a truck driver and torched eight trucks and oil tankers in eastern state of Bihar.

India is holding a staggered general election over April and May in which 714 million people are eligible to vote.

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