| A foreign observer talks to voters at Laripora in Pahalgam. (PTI)
Srinagar, Oct. 1: The calm that marked the first two rounds of polling in Jammu and Kashmir was shattered in the third phase today with militants mowing down eight persons on a bus and blowing up six BSF jawans.
Officials put today’s turnout at 41 per cent, a shade lower than the 42 per cent in the second phase. The first phase had recorded a turnout of 47 per cent.
Several polling stations were also attacked, forcing many to shun the third phase. But the turnout was swelled by heavy voting in Hindu-dominated areas in the south, while in the volatile separatist heartland to the north, as few as 25 per cent voted.
In Kathua, where the bus was attacked, turnout was the highest at 59 per cent. “The violence has become part of our life, but voting is something that we have to do,” farmer Randhir Singh said.
Just as polls opened, three militants wearing police uniforms attacked a bus travelling from Delhi to Jammu, riddling it with automatic fire as terrified passengers huddled on the floor. The attack came around 6.45 in the morning.
“There were two to three people wearing police uniforms,” Bhushan Lal, a passenger, said. “They opened fire on the bus as we crouched on the floor.”
Bhushan said victims were left lying in pools of blood. Police said five civilians died instantly while two died in hospital. Nine others were injured.
“The fire was so heavy, everybody was screaming, crying for help,” said Wanchuk Norbu, a student who was also on the bus.
Director general of police A.K. Suri said one of the militants belonging to a suicide squad was later killed by security forces while the hunt was on for the other two.
As polls closed, six BSF jawans died when their vehicle ran over a landmine in Pulwama district in the Valley. A paramilitary spokesman said two men were also injured in the blast in the volatile region,.
“After a very successful and violence-free poll in the first and second phase, our friends across (in Pakistan) were desperate,” chief electoral officer Pramod Jain said. “Despite a very high level of security, there have been a series of incidents today in all districts that went to polls.”
Militants also targeted polling stations at over a dozen places in Anantnag and Pulwana in the Valley, leaving nearly a dozen people, including security personnel, injured.
Sixteen of the 27 Assembly seats that went to polls today were from these two districts. The rest were in the border districts of Kathua and Udhampur in the Jammu region.
The last round of elections is on October 8.
Voting stations opened across four districts on a cold, crisp autumn morning, but many voters stayed away. Just three votes were cast in the first three hours at one polling booth in Anantnag, a bastion of separatism.
“This election is a fraud, we want freedom,” said Gul Mohammed Bhat, who works in a garage in the town.
An election commission official said the turnout was less than 4 per cent in the first two hours of polling.
Villagers along the heavily guarded national highway from Srinagar to Anantnag said they would not vote despite pressure.
“Security forces came in this morning and they asked us to go and vote, we promised them we will go... but we are not going,” said Farooq Ahmad, threshing rice on a farm by the roadside.