April 2, 2006

Voting begins in India’s Assam

GUWAHATI, India (Reuters) - Thousands of people lined up on
Monday to vote in India's Assam state as troops protected
polling booths from possible rebel attacks at the start of the
biggest electoral test for the federal coalition.

The vote in Assam in India's isolated northeast kicks off a
month-long election process in five states in the country's
south and east.

The Congress party, which rules three of the states and
heads the government in New Delhi, and its federal allies are
fighting stiff battles against the national coalition's own
communist allies as well as regional opposition parties.

In Assam, soldiers with automatic rifles guarded around 515
candidates, their political workers and voters from attacks by
separatist insurgents in 65 of the 126 constituencies across
the tea-and-oil-rich state where polling was being held on

Voting for the remaining seats will take place on April 10.

"Strict vigil is being kept across the state to ensure
peaceful voting, including helicopter patrols over remote areas
to detect any rebel movement," a police spokesman said.

Though the rebels said they have nothing to do with the
polls, authorities were not taking chances as voting in past
years had been marred by violence in the state of 26 million.

The Congress government in Assam is fighting for
re-election against a regional opposition party and the Hindu
nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), India's main
opposition party.

Opposition parties are highlighting the illegal immigration
of Muslim migrants from neighboring Bangladesh.

Assam, where a separatist revolt by the United Liberation
Front of Asom (ULFA) militant group rumbles on, is the most
populated in the turbulent northeast where more than two dozen
insurgent groups are battling Indian forces.

The Congress state government is banking on economic
development in rural areas and Muslim voters who make up around
30 percent of the 17-million-strong electorate to see it

The other states going to poll in April are the southern
states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala as well as the federal enclave
of Pondicherry and communist-ruled West Bengal in the east.