February 28, 2002

AHMADABAD, India (AP)--The army was being sent to stop rampaging Hindu mobs that attacked Muslims in the western Indian state of Gujarat Thursday after at least 58 people died in widespread riots across the state.

There were fears the violence would spread Friday as Hindu nationalists called an all-India strike to protest the deaths of 58 people, mostly Hindus, when a Muslim crowd set fire to a train Wednesday in a small town in Gujarat. The Hindu groups said they would set up barricades in the capital, New Delhi.

Hindu mobs, wielding iron rods and cans of petrol and kerosene, roamed the blockaded streets of Ahmadabad, the commercial hub of the state, attacking Muslims in their homes, shops and vehicles.

In the worst violence Thursday, a Hindu mob of 2,000 people set fire to six homes in an affluent Muslim neighborhood, burning to death at least 38 people, including 12 children, while the residents made frantic calls to the police and Fire Brigade.

Police said they arrived two hours after the phone calls and the fire fighters were delayed by more than six hours because of the road blockades.

A former lawmaker, Ehsan Jefri, fired at the mob when it tried to enter his house, but he was dragged out and burned alive.

``Our men could not reach there on time. This is not an excuse but it is an extremely unfortunate incident,'' said Ahmadabad Police Commissioner P.C. Pandey.

Police appeared outnumbered or unwilling to stop the violence. They stood in bunches, watching as mobs looted and burned Muslim offices and homes and blocked streets with bonfires of stolen goods.

In New Delhi, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee met separately with Hindu and Muslim religious leaders, and deputed Defense Minister George Fernandes to visit Ahmadabad on Friday. The army was ordered to ``stand by,'' said Home Minister Lal K. Advani, adding that some units would be flown to Gujarat to help the police.

Narendra Modi, Gujarat's chief minister, is a member of Vajpayee's party and his state government supported the strike called by the Hindu activists. He denied police had been derelict and said the Hindu majority had ``shown restraint'' in their response to the train attack.

Modi said the soldiers would march in Ahmadabad on Friday to restore confidence, and may be deployed in 26 towns, which were placed under curfew. He said 20 people had died, two of them by police firing, but gave his estimate before police reported the 38 dead Muslims in six houses.

In the ritzy Shahi Bagh neighborhood, a crowd of 20 people used iron rods and hammers to tear down a small mosque. Others set fire to the nearby five-story Rover Hotel, owned by Muslims.

A mob attacked the house of J.S. Bandukwala, a Muslim and local human rights activist, but were driven away by his Hindu neighbors.

``About 10 people came on motorbikes, torched my car, broke the entrance gate and lobbed burning rags and pelted stones at my house,'' he said. ``My neighbors took me and my family to safety.''

The violence was expected to spread Friday as Hindu nationalist groups affiliated with Vajpayee's party have called a national strike.

At least 150 people were admitted to city hospitals, mostly with stab wounds suffered at the hands of the freely roving mobs.

Police gave no estimate of how many had been arrested.

Smoke billowed across the skyline from 70 buildings as the sun set, and many people were believed to be trapped inside apartments.

Ahmadabad Mayor Himmatsinh Patel, who belongs to the opposition Congress party, said the Fire Brigade responded to at least 150 calls but in many neighborhoods violent mobs would not allow the firefighters to douse the flames.

``There was a complete breakdown of law and order. I have been calling for the Army but no action has been taken,'' he said.

Tension between Hindus and Muslims had been building for the last five days in Godhra, in eastern Gujarat, after local Hindu nationalists began traveling by train to and from a religious site in northern India, said police chief Raju Bhargava. At Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh state, the World Hindu Council vows to build a temple to the Hindu god Rama on the ruins of the 16th century Muslim mosque that Hindus tore down in 1992.

In subsequent nationwide riots, 2,000 people died.

Bhargava said the Hindu activists often refused to pay for food taken from Muslim vendors at the stations and brandished sticks as they shouted slogans, causing resentment and anger to build up.

The Hindu Council rejected the prime minister's plea Wednesday to help keep peace by dropping the plan to erect the Rama temple, beginning March 15, in defiance of court orders. Vajpayee has strongly supported the temple construction, but said the government opposes it being done by force.

Sixteen-year-old Gayatri Panchal saw her mother, father and two sisters die before her eyes in the train fire as they returned home after participating in a religious ceremony at Ayodhya.

``We were sleeping and I opened my eyes when I felt the heat. I saw flames everywhere. My mother was in flames, her clothes were on fire,'' she said. ``Someone pulled me out of the compartment and then I saw my father's body being taken out.''

Rajendra Singh, the police superintendent in Uttar Pradesh, where the disputed Ayodhya site is located, said 10,000 paramilitary troops had surrounded the town. Some 20,000 Hindu activists have gathered to pray for the temple construction.

India has witnessed similar riots on two other occasions. At least a million people were killed in fighting between Hindus and Muslims soon after India and Pakistan obtained independence from Britain in 1947.

In 1984, nearly a thousand Sikhs were killed when riots broke out after then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards.

As in most cases of civil strife or major violence in India, police and state officials, who refused to be identified, suggested that Pakistan's spy agency, or the Islamic militant groups with which it is linked, may have stirred up the trouble, inciting the Muslims to attack the train.

They provided no evidence, and they made no mention of any connection with the al-Qaida network of Osama bin Laden. Pakistani officials also routinely suggest an Indian connection when trouble erupts in their country.

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