Violence leaves 18 more dead in Kashmir elections

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The Independent Online

Elections in Indian-controlled Kashmir limped into the third of four rounds yesterday amid fresh bloodshed that killed 18, adding more names to the hundreds reported dead in two months.

Elections in Indian-controlled Kashmir limped into the third of four rounds yesterday amid fresh bloodshed that killed 18, adding more names to the hundreds reported dead in two months.

Tens of thousands of armed, flak-jacketed Indian security officers are patrolling the turbulent Himalayan region trying to curb violence and encourage voters, but this did not deter militants from a day of rampant bombings and shootings.

In the worst of these, eight people were killed when gunmen attacked a bus at Kathua, near the Pakistan border. For 20 minutes the gunmen – in police uniforms – raked the vehicle, which had been driven from Delhi, with automatic fire and lobbed in grenades. An unknown number of people were wounded in the attack, which was seen by Delhi as more evidence that Pakistan is sponsoring violent Islamic groups to undermine the elections in the Muslim-majority region.

Just after polls closed – after more than two dozen attacks on voting booths and security forces within a few hours – six Indian troopers accompanying election officials were killed when their vehicle was blown up by a bomb.

Tension between the two nuclear-armed rivals – already brittle after a bout of mutual mudslinging over the death of 30 people last week in an attack by Islamic extremists on a Hindu temple in Gujarat – seem set to rise again.

A Kashmir news agency said a relatively unknown guerrilla group called al-Arfeen claimed responsibility for the attack on the bus. The same group said it was behind the killing last month of the state law minister, Mushtaq Lone, a leader of the pro-India National Conference party. Indian police believe al-Arfeen is an offshoot of the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Tayyiba militant group.

Since the poll was announced in early August there has been an unremitting tide of deaths, with estimates of more than 600. Voters have cast their ballots behind walls of sandbags and barbed wire; dozens of party workers have been killed. India hopes the election, which has been boycotted by separatists, will endorse its rule.

Although there have been relatively few reports of blatant rigging, some suggestions of skulduggery emerged yesterday. In the village of Akad, 47 miles south of Srinagar, about 30 people surrounded the car of Associated Press journalists and complained that security forces were forcing them out of their houses to vote.

"They have retained our identity cards and said that they won't return them until we show the voting marks," said Mushtaq Ahmad, referring to the ink mark drawn on fingernails by polling officials after a vote. But India has been portraying the elections as a success, showing high turnout figures in the first two rounds of more than 40 per cent (although in Srinagar, the summer capital, the official figure was a mere 11 per cent).

India's election commission yesterday put the turnout for the third round – which was for 27 seats in the volatile districts of Anantnag, Pulwama, Udhampur and Kathua, at 41 per cent. Pakistani officials dismiss the poll as a farce, saying the Indian turnout figures are false, and the true numbers are significantly lower.

India views the level of election violence as a test of Pakistan's fitness for a possible future dialogue over Kashmir.

India's finance minister, Jaswant Singh, won headlines yesterday after raising the spectre of a pre-emptive strike, saying it was every country's right to prevent injury to itself.

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