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Suspected Maoists derail train in India

By Harmeet Shah Singh, CNN
  • NEW: One person was killed and 23 people injured, official says
  • India's Home Ministry guaranteed voters would participate without fear in elections
  • India regards communist rebels as single largest internal security threat
  • Officials admit rebels have influence in 20 of the country's 28 states
  • India

New Delhi, India (CNN) -- Suspected Maoists blew up a railway track in eastern India, derailing a train packed with passengers less than a week ahead of regional elections opposed by the powerful rebels, authorities said.

At least one person was killed and 23 people injured, said Sunil Kumar, the most senior official of West Singhbhum district in the state of Jharkhand, where the wreck occurred Thursday night.

The massive blast left a huge crater in the ground and badly damaged more than half a dozen rail cars, according to Kumar.

Less than two weeks ago, India's Home Ministry guaranteed that voters would be able to participate without fear in the elections starting November 25 in the mineral-rich but Maoist-stronghold region.

Six to eight coaches of the train came off the track after the explosion, federal Railway Ministry spokesman Anil Kumar Saxena told CNN. He had no immediate details, saying only that the train could have been carrying "quite a good number of passengers."

"It could be a handiwork of Naxals. Investigation is, however, on to ascertain (the cause)," Saxena said. Maoist guerrillas are also known as Naxals or Naxalites in India. The government categorizes them as hard-core, armed local guerillas and public militias and estimates there number at least 10,000.

They have battled the government since the late 1960s.

Seven months ago the communist rebels, whom India regards as its single largest internal-security threat, marred balloting in national elections with deadly attacks.

Voting in Jharkhand is to be held in five scattered phases from November 25 through December 18.

In a statement on November 10, the Home Ministry reacted to threats allegedly put out by Maoists that they would "punish" those taking part in the elections.

"The Ministry of Home Affairs would like to assure all voters in Jharkhand that they should have no concerns about their security and they will be able to exercise their franchise freely and fearlessly," it said.

Election authorities were authorized to deploy paramilitaries in rebel-controlled areas.

Maoists in India vowed to target the Congress Party and the regional Jharkhand Mukti Morcha group, the ministry noted.

"The Maoists are opposed to parliamentary democracy," it said in its November 10 note on the rebels, who say they are fighting for the poor and the dispossessed.

The ministry quoted the Naxalites as having written in an article that they believe there are no "virtuous people left in the (Indian) parliamentary pigsty."

Indian authorities also are planning a crackdown on the rebels, who officials admit now have influence in 20 of the country's 28 states. The new anti-Maoist plan focuses on wresting away their strongholds and holding onto them until governance is established.

In September, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh conceded the nation's fight with the Maoists had fallen short of objectives. Maoists enjoy support not only in the poorest and tribal communities but also among youth and the intelligentsia, officials suspect.

"We have not achieved as much success as we would have liked in containing this menace," Singh said in September. "It is a matter of concern that, despite our efforts, the level of violence in the affected states continues to rise."

Last year, 1,591 Maoist rebel attacks killed 721 people, government officials said. About 600 people have died so far this year in more than 1,400 rebel attacks.

In addition to targeting police, alleged police informers and people they call "class enemies," the rebels are also attacking infrastructure such as roads, bridges, railways, and power and telecommunication networks.