April 24, 2002

AHMADABAD, India (AP) - Police fired tear gas at about 3,000 people, mostly Muslims, who demonstrated peacefully outside a police station in Gujarat state on Wednesday, demanding security forces protect them after a Hindu mob rampaged through their neighborhood.

The police have been accused of failing to do enough to protect Muslims from Hindu militants and sections of the force have even been accused of taking sides and supporting the Hindus.

Last Sunday, police officers shot nine Muslims in the head during a Hindu-Muslim clash. The state government has said it will investigate the killings and a human rights group denounced the shootings saying police deliberately targeted the Muslims.

Police said they fired tear gas on Wednesday because they feared the protesters might turn violent. No injuries were reported. More than 500 Hindu and Muslim women and children were sheltering inside the police station, in the Shahibaug area of Ahmadabad, at the time of the demonstration.

The demonstrators demanded police protection after a 5,000-strong, armed Hindu mob rampaged through Shahibaug, a mostly Muslim neighborhood, on Tuesday night blowing up cooking gas canisters to ignite fires and destroying 30 shops and a Muslim shrine.

Despite being fired at with tear gas, the demonstrators refused to leave the station until they were assured by senior officers that those responsible for Tuesday night's violence would be arrested.

Also Tuesday, hundreds of Hindu men and women stormed the local police commissioner's office. Some demanded the release of Hindus, arrested for allegedly taking part in the violence. Others demanded the closing of a relief camp housing 4,500 Muslims whose homes were razed by Hindus. The Hindu protesters said the presence of the Muslim refugees caused tension in the area.

The death toll from nearly two months of violence rose to 863 on Wednesday when a body with multiple stab wounds was found in the exclusive Law Garden area of Ahmadabad, the commercial capital, and a burned body was found near a temple in another part of the city, police said. The religions of the two dead were not known.

The sectarian fighting began on Feb. 27, when Muslims set fire to a train carrying Hindu activists returning from a pilgrimage aimed at building a Hindu temple on the site of a mosque destroyed by a Hindu mob in 1992.

Since then, most of those killed have been Muslims, many burned alive and their businesses and homes destroyed by Hindu mobs.

The inability of the state government to stop the rioting, and allegations of police discrimination, have provoked widespread demands for the dismissal of the state's top official, Chief Minister Narendra Modi.

The violence has provoked outrage from the opposition in Parliament against Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's Hindu nationalist party, which also controls Gujarat's state government.

A Parliament debate that could lead to censure of the federal government is to begin April 30.

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