Patna (India) (AFP) - A series of crude bombs killed five people and injured dozens in an eastern Indian city Sunday, shortly before opposition candidate Narendra Modi was due to hold a campaign rally.
Seven small bombs exploded near the venue in Patna where tens of thousands were gathering to hear Hindu hardliner Modi, a popular but divisive leader, launch the opposition's campaign in Bihar state for upcoming general elections.
The first explosion occurred in a public toilet at a railway station in Patna, before more bombs exploded near and just outside the Gandhi Maidan ground where the large rally was held, police said.
Five people were killed and 83 others injured, Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar told a press conference in Patna.
"It seems that today's blasts were preplanned in Patna and I would like to assure everyone that no effort will be spared to solve the case," Kumar said.
"Making a guess on who did it would be premature at this stage. I rule out any political conspiracy," he said.
Police said two people have been arrested and several others detained for questioning, while the national government deployed anti-terrorism forces to Patna to investigate.
Television footage showed people running from several explosions at the venue, with smoke rising above them. Police helped carry the injured to hospitals, where mostly men with bloodied bandages were seen lying on beds and connected to intravenous drips.
"The condition of nearly half a dozen injured is critical," said an official from the Patna Medical College and Hospital, adding that some people were injured in stampedes after the blasts.
Modi, a polarising figure particularly among religious minorities, later took to the stage and urged Hindus and Muslims to unite to overcome poverty in Bihar, a key battleground in the general election due next May.
"If we want to take Bihar forward we need to unite people of all religions, caste and creed together... We want to unite people, not divide them," he told cheering supporters in a speech that did not mention the blasts.
"Our opponents are fooling people. That's why I want to ask my poor Muslim and Hindu brothers, do you want to fight against each other or against poverty?"
Modi has been campaigning to topple the ruling Congress party since he was named last month as the Bharatiya Janata Party's prime ministerial candidate for the national elections.
The chief minister of the economically successful western state of Gujarat, Modi is popular with the corporate world. Many hope he can revive Asia's third-largest economy if elected next year.
But he remains a divisive figure, tarred by religious riots in Gujarat in 2002. As many as 2,000 people were killed, mainly Muslims, according to rights groups.
Modi was chief minister at the time and denied any wrongdoing, but one of his former ministers was jailed last year for orchestrating some of the violence.
The rally in Patna was seen as key for Modi after the governing party in Bihar broke off a 17-year alliance with the BJP over choosing him as its candidate.
After the rally, Modi described the blasts as "deeply saddening and unfortunate". "Condolences with families of deceased & prayers with injured. I appeal for peace & calm," he tweeted.
Four more unexploded crude bombs were discovered at the railway station and the venue site after bomb disposal squads swept through, Bihar police chief Abhayanand, who uses one name, said.
In a statement, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh condemned the blasts, appealed for calm and "called for urgent steps to identify and take action against those responsible".
Junior home minister R.P.N. Singh said officers from the National Security Guard and National Investigation Agency have been deployed to Bihar.
Modi and his political rival Rahul Gandhi from the Congress party are holding a series of mass rallies across the country in a battle to win five key state elections later this year.
Those elections are seen as a crucial test of popularity, with both parties hoping to capitalise on any momentum from the results for next year's general election.