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Kashmir killings cast shadow over next round of general elections in India

NEW DELHI--Rebels shot dead two village heads and another man in Indian Kashmir, police said Tuesday, casting a shadow on the next round of India's marathon general elections slated for later this week.

The polls are being staggered in the disputed Muslim-majority region and across the subcontinent in a bid to ensure voter safety across the country of 1.25 billion people.

Police blamed the region's top insurgent group, Hizbul Mujahideen, for the separate attacks late Monday, which they said were an attempt to discourage locals from voting in polls to be held on Thursday.

The attackers entered the home of one village head and shot him dead and killed another senior village official and his 24-year-old son about an hour later in the same area.

Some dozen rebel groups have been fighting for more than two decades for Indian Kashmir's independence or merger with Pakistan, in violence that has claimed the lives of tens of thousands of people.

Security forces searched for the killers as posters were pasted outside several mosques in the main bazaar town of Tral, apparently by the Hizbul Mujahideen, warning that “voting for tyrants will entail punishment.”

Conciliatory Remarks by Modi

Separately, Hindu nationalist leader Narendra Modi tried to strike a conciliatory tone over the contentious issue of India's Muslims late Tuesday, and to distance himself from inflammatory remarks by a one-time associate.

Polls forecast Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will end a decade of sitting in opposition and emerge as the biggest party in the next parliament when the election results come May 16, and that he will be India's next premier.

Modi described Muslims as “brothers” in a television interview with India's ABP news, and promised to “reach out to the entire population” if elected, addressing worries that a BJP government could jeopardize the secular foundations of Hindu-majority India.

His comments came as former associate Praveen Togadia, head of the right-wing Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council), faces a police investigation after a video appeared to show him urging Hindus to evict Muslims from their neighborhoods in western Gujarat state.

Togadia insisted to reporters he was only advising how to resolve property rows with Muslims in the video.

Muslims comprise 13 percent of India's population making them the largest religious minority, and the 63-year-old Modi remains a deeply suspect figure among them.

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