102 pilgrims killed in stampede at Indian festival

A stampede of pilgrims returning from one of India's most popular Hindu festivals killed at least 102 people and injured 44 others, officials said today.

The stampede was set off last night when a group of pilgrims in a jeep drove into a crowd of worshippers walking along a narrow forest path as they returned from offering prayers at the hilltop Sabarimala shrine in the state of Kerala in southern India, said local police official Sanjay Kumar.

All the injured were taken to hospital, some in a serious condition, Kumar said.

"We have recovered 102 bodies. The rescue work is almost over," he said.

The area was flooded with pilgrims and the stampede took place nearly 50 miles northeast of the temple site, Kumar said.

The annual two-month festival attracts millions of worshippers to the remote temple to the Hindu deity Ayyappan. The ceremony Friday marked the end of the festival, and an estimated 150,000 devotees were thought to have taken the narrow path out of the densely forested hills where the stampede took place, said Thomas Isaac, the state finance minister.

Millions of devotees make the pilgrimage each year, and nearly 2,000 police officers were deployed near the shrine to prevent such an accident from happening.

Isaac said police had scoured the forest area near the stampede site and did not expect to find any more bodies.

"So far 56 bodies have been identified. Our priority now is to identify the rest of the bodies and hand them over to the families of the victims," he said.

Rescue workers found it difficult to reach the stampede site due to the dense tropical forest on the hills surrounding the vast Sabarimala temple complex, Isaac said.

Manoj Kutty, 33, was returning from Sabarimala after taking part in a ritual lamp lighting ceremony and evening prayers at the temple complex when the stampede occurred.

"People were rushing downhill, and we could see people fall down and others fall over them. It all happened in seconds," Kutty said today.

Deadly stampedes are relatively common at temples in India, where large crowds - sometimes hundreds of thousands of people - gather in tiny areas with no safety measures or crowd control.

In March, 63 people were killed when poor villagers scrambled for free food and clothing being given away at a ceremony at a temple in northern Uttar Pradesh state. In 2008, more than 145 people died in a stampede at a remote Hindu temple at the foothills of the Himalayas.