NEW DELHI (AFP) - Maoist rebels killed three soldiers guarding polling officials in central India on Wednesday, highlighting security concerns in the world's biggest elections as the second phase of voting got under way.
The rebels staged the attack in the country's insurgency-wracked centre one day ahead of polling in Chhattisgarh state as voters in the restive northeast of the country cast their ballots.
Elsewhere, election frontrunner Narendra Modi waved to thousands of supporters of his opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as he filed his papers to stand from the Vadodara constituency in western Gujarat.
"Citizens of Vadodara have given me a grand welcome and I thank them," the hardline Hindu nationalist, widely tipped to emerge as prime minister when results are published on May 16, told reporters.
The BJP is expected to sweep to power at the elections for the 543-seat parliament at a time of low economic growth as well as seething anger over corruption and rising food prices.
In central Chhattisgarh, police said rebels attacked a convoy of paramilitary commandos as they were returning from escorting election officials to a polling station, about 415 km south of state capital Raipur.
"In a gun battle with the Maoists, three commandos of the central paramilitary forces were killed in Chintagufa area," chief of the state's anti-Maoist operations Rajinder Kumar Vij told AFP. Three soldiers were also injured.
They were the first election-related deaths which underscored the security challenges facing organisers in India where separatist and Maoist insurgencies afflict large parts of the northeast, northwest and forested central areas.
Another three soldiers were injured elsewhere in Chhattisgarh when they stepped on a mine laid by rebels who have been waging a decades-long campaign for greater land and other rights for tribal groups, Mr Vij said.
SECURITY TIGHT IN NORTHEAST
Security was tight in constituencies in the four small states close to the disputed border with China which were part of the second wave of voting in the election, which has been staggered to allow security forces time to redeploy.
Voters flocked early to polling stations in Arunachal Pradesh state, an eastern stretch of the Himalayas that China claims as its own, despite pouring rain overnight, the Press Trust of India news agency reported.
During campaigning in February in the area, the scene of a 1962 war between India and China, Mr Modi had warned Beijing to shed its "expansionist mindset".
Hundreds of extra security forces have been deployed in neighbouring and underdeveloped Nagaland state - where rebels have long waged a campaign for more rights - for polling day.
Nagaland chief minister Neiphiu Rio, who has brought 11 regional parties under one banner for the polls, has promised to support a BJP-led coalition in the hope of bringing peace and development to the northeast.
"The Congress party has failed to impress the people in our region in terms of all-round development," Rio told AFP after casting his vote.
Six seats are up for grabs on Wednesday in Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Meghalaya and Manipur, often neglected states in a part of India wedged between China, Bangladesh and Myanmar.
A third phase of voting is scheduled for Thursday which will be by far the biggest to date with constituencies in 14 states including the capital region heading to the ballot box.
As well as a Vadodara, Mr Modi is also set to stand from a second seat in the northern holy Hindu city of Varanasi on the river Ganges in the battleground state of Uttar Pradesh.