%mlink(STRY:; PHOTO:XDG106-100102; AUDIO:%)

SRINAGAR, India (AP) _ Suspected Islamic separatists attacked polling stations, set off explosives and fired at security forces in Indian Kashmir on Tuesday, killing at least 15 people in the third and most violent round of polls for the state legislature in the disputed Himalayan region.

Despite the bloodshed and the separatists' call to boycott the elections, some 41 percent of registered voters cast their ballots.

Minutes before the polls opened, suspected Islamic militants killed nine people in a raid on a bus near the Pakistan border in Kathua district, as thousands of Indian soldiers patrolled Kashmir's militant heartland to secure polling stations.

Six paramilitary troopers escorting poll officials were killed just after the voting closed when an explosion destroyed their vehicle in Panzgam, 35 miles south of Srinagar, the summer capital of the state. Four of the troopers were injured.

The violence appeared to affect turnout in some areas, with 28 percent of voters casting ballots in Pulwama district and 25 percent in Anantnag district _ the Kashmir Valley's rebel strongholds _ according to federal Election Commission reports.

However, Tuesday's overall voter turnout reached 41 percent, with up to 59 percent turning out in the predominantly Hindu districts of Udhampur and Kathua, the commission said. The majority of Kashmiris are Muslims.

While the first two rounds of voting for the 87-seat state assembly _ held Sept. 16 and 24 _ were relatively peaceful, there were 23 major violent incidents Tuesday, including grenade explosions, gunfire attacks and bomb blasts, said Pramod Jain, chief elections officer in Srinagar.

``The poll turnout and voter enthusiasm would have been better had the violence not erupted,'' Jain said.

Voter turnout averaged 43.4 percent in the past two rounds.

The last election day is Oct. 8, with final results expected by Oct. 12. The state has 5.7 million eligible voters.

The British Broadcasting Corp. office in Srinagar said it received a telephone call from the Pakistan-based Hezb-ul Mujahedeen group claiming responsibility for the killing of the six paramilitary soldiers.

Kashmir Press Service, a local news agency, said it received a message from a lesser-known militant group, Al-Arifeen, claiming responsibility for a dozen attacks on polling booths. Police say Al-Arifeen is an offshoot of the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Tayyaba militant group. The group also claimed responsibility for the murders last month of the state's law minister and a political activist.

As during the first two election phases, many voters said Indian security troops forced them to cast ballots in the region, which is claimed by both India and Pakistan and has sparked two wars between the nuclear-armed neighbors.

Pakistan-based Islamic groups that dispute India's authority to hold the elections had vowed to disrupt them by killing voters and candidates. More than 135 political activists, candidates, soldiers and civilians have died since the polls were announced in August.

The militants and Kashmiri separatists claim the elections are rigged to favor the ruling, pro-India National Conference party.

The bus attacked Tuesday was traveling to the region on a highway from the Indian capital, New Delhi, when it came under fire just before polls opened in Kathua district, 45 miles south of Jammu, the state's winter capital.

Villagers said the suspected militants hijacked a minivan at a border village and drove it into an electrical pole near an open-air vegetable market. The gunmen then jumped out, firing weapons and hurling grenades at the bus before fleeing.

In other violence Tuesday, an Indian paramilitary officer was injured in an explosion in Pulwama, 40 miles south of Srinagar, the state's summer capital, after suspected rebels detonated a bomb, police said.

In Shopian, some 35 miles from Srinagar, at least nine polling stations were attacked, though there were no reports of casualties. Suspected guerrillas also lobbed a grenade at the town market, but no one was injured, police said.

In the town, 37 miles from Srinagar, hundreds of people demonstrated against the elections and renewed their calls for Kashmir's independence.

``The only solution to our problems is independence. We don't want jobs. We don't want seats in colleges. We want freedom,'' said student Mohammed Idries.

Khurshid, a contractor who goes by only one name, said there few voters cast ballots in Shopian.

``They will inflate the count in the evening on television, but that will be a lie,'' he said.

In nearby Laripora, dozens of villagers lined up to vote.

Mohammad Yusuf Khumar, a 25-year-old government employee, said he and his neighbors were tired of the current administration after 12 years of ``uncertainty,'' and that ``with our votes we will try to ensure its defeat.''

``In our village, we have decided to use our vote to alter the political map of our state,'' said Khumar.

Federal and state officials hope high voter turnout will sap the separatist movement's strength in the state.

India accuses Pakistan of trying to disrupt the elections by allowing the militants to cross into the Indian-controlled portion of Kashmir. Islamabad denies the charge, and says the elections are a sham.