NEW DELHI: Maoist rebels on Thursday ambushed an Indian military patrol and killed four soldiers in a jolt to security ahead of a national election starting next week, officials said.

Authorities also faced protests over the closure of a major highway in India-held Kashmir for two days a week during voting so it could be used for military convoys.

Border Security Force troops were on a foot patrol in a remote forested district of Chhattisgarh state when attacked. Six BSF troops were wounded in the attack.

State police chief, D.M. Awasthi, who gave the toll, said the wounded soldiers had been evacuated from Kanker district.

Indian forces have been fighting Maoists for decades in the mineral-rich central state, which will vote on April 11, the first day of the multi-stage nationwide election which will only end on May 19.

The rebels often call for a boycott of elections as part of their campaign against the Indian state.

The Maoists are believed to be present in at least 20 other states but are most active in Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Bihar, Jharkhand and Maharashtra. Their insurgency has left tens of thousands dead.

Tens of thousands have also been killed in the past three decades in India-held Kashmir where authorities have ordered the main Udhampur-Baramulla highway — a 300-kilometre ‘lifeline’ from the occupied valley to India — on Wednesdays and Sundays to prevent suicide attacks.

India has stepped up security in the disputed Himalayan region since a February suicide bomb attack on a convoy which killed over 40 paramilitary personnel.

The road closure order issued on Wednesday night sparked angry protests from politicians, businesses and residents in the region.

Omar Abdullah, a former chief minister in the region, said patients would not be able to reach hospitals, students would not get to schools and many people would not get to work.

“There has to be a better, less people unfriendly way of protecting forces using the highway,” he said on Twitter.

“This is martial law. We have never seen this kind of ban here and it will hugely affect trade between Kashmir and states in India,” Yasin Khan, a business leader, said.

The only other road connecting the landlocked valley to Jammu in the south is in bad shape and closed for many months each year.

A railway link under construction for nearly 15 years has missed several completion deadlines.

“Last I checked, we were a democracy. But this sounds like a diktat of martial law,” said Mehbooba Mufti, another former chief minister and ally of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The government was inflicting “collective punishment on Kashmiris”, she said on Twitter.

Published in Dawn, April 5th, 2019

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