The execution-style attacks targeted two village council heads in the Anantnag district in the broad Kashmir valley to the south of Srinagar.

The police and army launched a combined operation to find the militants blamed for the attacks, the most serious in Jammu and Kashmir, India's only Muslim-majority province, of this election season.

"Two village headmen are among three persons killed ahead of polls in South Kashmir's Anantnag constituency tonight," Deputy Superintendent of Police Pervaiz Ahmad said.

"Village headman Mohammad Anwar Sheikh of Amlar Tral was killed at around 9 p.m. while in another village, Batgund Tral, a village headman, and his son was shot dead by militants," he said.

Kashmir has been divided between India and Pakistan since a war after independence from Britain in 1947. New Delhi maintains a massive military presence in its northernmost territory.

Police believe a few dozen separatist Islamist insurgents, some of them foreign, are at large in southern Kashmir, where they enjoy sympathy among parts of the population that aspire to independence.

In a similar attack on April 17, Mohammad Amin Pandith, the head of another village council in the Anantnag constituency, was shot dead by an assailant wearing army uniform who lured him out of his house.

"He was targeted to make a threat to the whole area (so that) people cannot be active in the election process," his brother, Abdul Rahim Pandith, said.

"There are people here who support freedom (for Kashmir) - they want to boycott the election," he added.

Following the killing, 25 local councilors in the area resigned their posts.

Pandith represented the People's Democratic Party, a regional opposition party that seeks more autonomy for Kashmir but, unlike both mainstream and militant separatists, recognizes and takes part in elections to the Indian parliament.

The other main party, the Jammu & Kashmir National Conference of regional Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, is allied to the ruling Congress party that faces defeat at the hands of the Hindu nationalist opposition Bharatiya Janata Party.

Because of the security situation, voting in Jammu and Kashmir's six parliamentary constituencies is being staggered through India's five-week general election that ends on May 12. Results are due four days later.

At 39 percent, voter participation in Jammu and Kashmir in the 2009 general election was lower than in any other Indian state, reflecting popular disaffection that still lingers after an insurgency that flared in the 1990s.


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