SRINAGAR, India – Militants struck polling stations, set off explosions and fired on security forces in Indian Kashmir on Tuesday, killing at least 15 people in the third and most violent round of balloting for the state legislature.
Wednesday brought more violence, and at least 10 deaths in three separate attacks.
Nearly 150 political activists, candidates, soldiers and civilians have died since the elections were announced in August. Nevertheless, 41 percent of registered voters in the disputed Himalayan province braved the violence and ignored a separatist call for a boycott.
Minutes before the polls opened Tuesday, suspected Islamic militants killed nine people in a raid on a bus near the Pakistan border in Kashmir's Kathua district. Thousands of Indian soldiers patrolled the region's militant heartland to secure polling stations.
Just after polls closed, six paramilitary troopers escorting poll officials were killed when their vehicle was blown apart in Panzgam, 35 miles south of the state's summer capital, Srinagar. Four troopers were injured.
On Wednesday, a bus filled with Hindu pilgrims was bombed near Jammu, the state's winter capital, killing at least two passengers and injuring 22 others, officials said.
Hours later, five paramilitary soldiers were killed in an explosion as they checked a road for land mines in Pashtoon, a village about 40 miles south of Srinagar, a police official said speaking on condition of anonymity.
Elsewhere, suspected guerrillas shot and killed three activists with India's ruling party in the small town of Haihama, about 65 miles north of Srinagar, the official said. There was no word on who was responsible for Wednesday's attacks, but suspicion fell on Islamic militants.
It was still unclear what group was responsible for Tuesday's violence, including attacks on dozens of polling stations.
The British Broadcasting Corp. office in Srinagar said it received a telephone call from the Pakistan-based Hezb-ul Mujahedeen claiming responsibility for the attack on the paramilitary soldiers.
A local news agency said it received a message from a lesser-known militant group, Al-Arifeen, claiming it was behind the polling booth attacks. Police say Al-Arifeen is an offshoot of the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Tayyaba militant group, which took responsibility last month for the killing of Kashmir's law minister and a ruling party activist.
Pakistan-based Islamic groups dispute India's authority to hold legislative elections in the disputed territory and vowed to disrupt them by killing voters and candidates. The militants and Kashmiri separatists claim the elections are rigged to favor the pro-India ruling party, the National Conference.
The violence curbed turnout in two rebel strongholds, the Pulwama and Anantnag districts, where the federal Election Commission reported turnout at 28 percent and 25 percent respectively. However, 59 percent of registered voters cast ballots in the predominantly Hindu districts of Udhampur and Kathua, the commission said.
While the first two rounds of voting for the 87-seat state assembly were relatively peaceful, there were 23 major incidents Tuesday, including grenade explosions, shootings and bomb blasts, said Pramod Jain, chief elections officer in Srinagar.
During the previous two rounds -- Sept. 16 and 24 -- voter turnout averaged 43.4 percent. The final round is Oct. 8, with results expected four days later. The state has 5.7 million eligible voters.
Many people, as in the first two rounds, said troops forced them to vote.
In other violence Tuesday, an Indian paramilitary officer was injured in an explosion in Pulwama, 40 miles south of Srinagar, after suspected rebels detonated a bomb early Tuesday, police said.
In Shopian, 35 miles from Srinagar, at least nine polling stations were attacked, though there were no reports of casualties. Guerrillas also lobbed a grenade at the town market, but no one was injured, police said.
Hundreds of people demonstrated against the elections and renewed their calls for Kashmir's independence.
"The only solution to our problems is independence. We don't want jobs. We don't want seats in colleges. We want freedom," said student Mohammed Idries.
Khurshid, a contractor who goes by only one name, said there were few voters in Shopian.
"They will inflate the count in the evening on television, but that will be a lie," he said.
In nearby Laripora, dozens of villagers lined up to vote.
Mohammad Yusuf Khumar, a 25-year-old government employee, said he and his neighbors were tired of the cErrent administration after 12 years of "uncertainty" and that "with our votes we will try to ensure its defeat."
"In our village, we have decided to use our vote to alter the political map of our state," said Khumar.
Federal and state officials hope high voter turnout will sap the separatist movement in the Himalayan state, the focus of two wars between India and Pakistan. Both countries claim the region in its entirety.
India accuses Pakistan of trying to disrupt the elections by allowing the militants to cross into the Indian-controlled portion of Kashmir. Islamabad denies the charge and says the elections are a sham.
New Delhi also blames Pakistan-based militant groups for a Dec. 13 attack on the Indian parliament along with help from Pakistan.
The two nuclear-armed countries nearly went to war after the attack, and more than a million troops are still deployed along their borders. Tensions eased amid intense international mediation. Pakistan and India have fought three wars, two over Kashmir, since gaining independence from Britain in 1947.