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Maoists take 300 hostage

RANCHI, Apr 22 – Maoist rebels in India took more than 300 passengers hostage on a train, police said, as the insurgents stepped up attacks coinciding with 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, police said.

"Rebels have the train in their control. We are preparing to rescue the people," senior officer Sarvendu Thatagat told AFP.

India’s Maoist insurgency, which grew out of a peasant uprising in 1967, has hit more than half of the country’s 29 states.

The rebels, who have been described by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as the biggest overall threat to India’s security, say they are fighting for the rights of neglected tribal people and landless farmers.

The train was held in Latehar district, which went to the polls in the first phase of month-long elections on April 16, with further voting in the state to be held on Thursday.

Latehar was hit by Maoist violence during voting last week when a landmine hit a bus carrying paramilitary forces to a polling booth in the district, located 140 kilometres (90 miles) from the state capital Ranchi.

Seven soldiers and two civilians were killed in that attack.

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Indian television reported that as many as 700 people may have been taken hostage Wednesday by the Maoists, who use the forests of neighbouring Chhattisgarh state as their base.

Railway spokesman A.K. Chandra told the NDTV news channel that there was no contact with the train as the rebels had cut communication links.

"At the moment we have helicopters surveying the train and sending us feedback," said a senior security official who did not want to be named.

"We need to carefully deliberate (about) our rescue mission or there could be casualties," he said, adding that no injuries had been reported and that the guerrillas had not yet made any demands.

Maoists called a general strike in the area on Wednesday and in the past have launched similar attacks to enforce their call for all businesses to stay closed and for people to remain in their homes during the strike.

Polling in areas of India hit by the Maoist insurgency has been staggered over several phases to ensure adequate deployment of security personnel, with voting not scheduled to be completed until May 13.

Across eastern India, the left-wing rebels killed at least 16 people during the first phase of voting.

In Chhattisgarh, the Maoists’ heartland, a rebel unit blew up a jeep carrying election officials, killing five, and several serious gun battles were also reported.

Maoists have targeted trains in the region in the past.

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In March 2006, they held about 200 train passengers hostage for 12 hours before releasing them unharmed.

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