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58 Die in India Train Attack

Posted: Friday, March 01, 2002 at 06:32 AM CT

GODHRA, India (AP) - Muslim attackers armed with stones and kerosene descended on a train carrying hundreds of Hindu nationalists on Wednesday, setting fire to four cars and killing 58 people.

Fourteen of the dead were children and 43 other people were injured, many critically, when a mob attacked the train as it pulled out of Godhra shortly after 6:30 a.m., Gujarat state officials said.

The rail station chief, J.K. Katija, said Thursday that Muslim tea vendors and their neighbors attacked the train after slogan-chanting passengers refused to pay for snacks during a five-minute halt.

Fearing the attack would ignite sectarian riots, Indian officials immediately stepped up security across this vast, religiously divided nation. The prime minister urged Hindus not to retaliate.

The nationalists belonged to the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, or World Hindu Council, a group seeking to build a temple at the disputed holy site of Ayodhya. Ten years ago, fighting between Muslims and Hindus over Ayodhya killed 2,000 people.

Most of the 2,500 Hindu activists on board the Sabarmati Express were returning from Ayodhya and were bound for Ahmadabad, 95 miles to the south.

Smoke was still pouring from the train Wednesday afternoon as relief workers gingerly removed the charred bodies, which were piled on top of one another, their limbs entangled.

State officials and witnesses said the Muslims appeared incensed by Hindu chanting on the railroad platform in Godhra.

The cars they destroyed were detached, and the train continued on to Vadodara, 60 miles to the south. There, a Hindu crowd that had gathered at the station fatally stabbed a man as he got off the train, hospital officials said. Several other people were beaten with sticks, they said.

Later Wednesday in Godhra, a 17-year-old boy was killed when police fired shots and tear gas to disperse mobs looting shops and setting them ablaze, officials said.

On Thursday, a mob of hundreds of people tore through the streets of Ahmadabad, ransacking stores and setting goods on fire as outnumbered police stood by and watched. At least three Muslim-owned restaurants were set on fire, as gangs of Hindu nationalists went through neighborhoods.

Also overnight, at least five Muslims were stabbed to death in three other towns.

Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee called on Hindu nationalists not to retaliate. "We need to protect Indian brotherhood at every cost," said Vajpayee, who canceled a trip to Australia for a Commonwealth summit after the attack.

Uttar Pradesh state officials said 3,000 paramilitary troops were sent to Ayodhya to help police seal off the town. Only residents with passes were allowed in.

Most of Godhra was placed under curfew Wednesday night.

Gujarat Home Minister Gordhan Zadaphia said security was tightened in Muslim areas of the state, and that police were ordered to shoot on sight to prevent rioting.

"It is clear from the statements of survivors that the attack was carried out by local people belonging to the Muslim community and, for this reason, because of chances of retaliation, we have already instructed our police officers to arrange special security cover for the Muslim population," Zadaphia said.

Police also deployed extra patrols in cities where Muslims and Hindus live in close quarters. In Old Delhi, the Muslim section of India's capital, security was tightened in the congested lanes of the ancient walled city.

The World Hindu Council alleged that the Godhra attackers were retaliating for its plans to build a temple in Ayodhya. Hindus razed a 16th-century Muslim mosque at the site a decade ago, sparking the deadly nationwide riots that killed more than 2,000 people.

The council called a statewide general strike on Thursday.

"The Muslim mob chose the compartments in which the volunteers were in," said Jaideep Patel, joint secretary of the council. "Once they identified three compartments in which there were about 160 volunteers, they threw containers of kerosene and petrol inside."

More than 20,000 Hindu activists had gathered in Ayodhya, which lies 345 miles east of New Delhi, since the council announced it would break ground on a temple by March 15 in defiance of court orders banning construction at the disputed site.

Muslim leaders said several families among the town's 7,000 Muslims had locked their houses and fled out of fear of the Hindu nationalists.

"Hindu terrorists armed with tridents," the symbol of the Hindu god of destruction, Shiva, "are creating a fear psychosis in Ayodhya and they should be banned immediately," Harshim Ansari, a plaintiff in the legal case over the destroyed mosque, told reporters in Ayodhya.

Harish Umer, district chief of the Muslim Minority Forum, warned that if the government failed to take steps to stop the flight of Muslims, he would call for Muslims nationwide to come and defend their brethren.

Vajpayee urged the council to drop its demands for a Hindu temple in Ayodhya.

"The solution to this problem will not come by a movement of this kind or by violence," he said. "There are only two ways by dialogue or leave it to the courts."

Clashes between Hindus and Muslims are frequent in Godhra, where Muslims make up 30 percent of the population. India's most powerful Hindu nationalist groups are strong in Gujarat, and the relatively prosperous state is the site of many religious clashes.

Some witnesses put the Muslim mob count at 2,000, but Raju Bhargav, Godhra's police superintendent, said there were about 100 attackers. He said there had also been clashes over the weekend between Hindus and Muslims in a nearby town where Muslims were celebrating the festival of Eid al-Adha.

"This could have been in retaliation for the trouble on Eid," Bhargav said.

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