Death toll mounts as religious riots spread in India

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Thousands of soldiers fanned out across the west Indian state of Gujarat yesterday, trying to stem the country's worst Hindu-Muslimviolence in nearly 10 years.

Thousands of soldiers fanned out across the west Indian state of Gujarat yesterday, trying to stem the country's worst Hindu-Muslimviolence in nearly 10 years.

By yesterday at least 295 had died, most of them Muslims, in an orgy of Hindu revenge for the burning to death of 58 Hindu pilgrims returning from the contested religious site of Ayodhya on Wednesday. Ayodhya is the site where, in December 1992, a Hindu mob demolished a 16th-century mosque, provoking riots in which 3,000 people died.

The true death toll from the latest violence may be much higher: police and other vestiges of authority were absent from the scene in the smaller towns and cities of Gujarat, which borders Pakistan and yet is a stronghold of Hindu nationalism, as the state's fragile peace disintegrated.

A Hindu mob in Ahmedabad, the biggest city in the state, trapped a family of eight inside their all-terrain vehicle on a street in the shanty town of Naroda and then burnt them alive. Fearing attacks, many of the Muslim residents of the shanty town fled their homes on Thursday. Then at 2am yesterday, hundreds of Hindus poured into the district with petrol bombs, killing 52 people as they slept and seriously injuring 17 more. Late last night there were reports that 30 more Muslims had been burnt to death in Pandarvada, a village 30 miles from Ghodra, the site of Wednesday's train atrocity.

Much of Ahmedabad was seized by mob rule as vengeful Hindus blocked roads with blazing tyres, set fire to Muslim shops and homes and stabbed or burnt any Muslims they happened upon. The rampage stirred echoes of 1947, when a million died in the orgy of communal violence that followed partition, and of 1993, when the tearing down of Ayodhya's Babri mosque sent the subcontinent into paroxysms. It was another bout of the fever that has the whole region in its grip, which appears to relent then returns years later with undiminished force.

Against this, the police were largely powerless. They shot dead nine people in Ahmedabad yesterday, according to one state government minister, and another official said 1,200 people had been arrested since Thursday. But across much of the state, authority of any sort was conspicuously missing. Haroon Jawahiri, a Muslim visiting relatives in Ahmedabad from his home in America, said: "We were defenceless. The government was not there, the police were not there. From noon to eight there was mayhem. We kept calling the police, the fire brigade. The police came and they told us, 'You stay inside'."

In parts of the city, Hindu and Muslim neighbours who have lived alongside each other for decades suddenly turned on one another, pelting each other with stones and petrol bombs, aiming bottles of concentrated acid at each other's women. One businessman, watching horrified from the fringes, said: "It's madness what they're doing. They're going for each other's throats."

A brigade of Army soldiers was flown to Ahmedabad to restore order, but reports by Indian journalists indicated they had merely pushed the murderous frenzy into smaller towns. In the industrial town of Bhavnagar, between 25 and 30 sites were on fire, including the Apollo Hotel. Along the highway between Baroda and Ghodra eight factories, a hotel and a film studio were burnt to the ground. Violence was reported in 31 towns across the state.

Atal Behari Vajpayee, the Prime Minister, cancelled his trip to the Commonwealth leaders' conference in Australia. A meeting between him and opposition parties concluded with a joint appeal for calm.

Bur ordinary Indians were pessimistic. Tension has been brewing for months: the bitter stand-off with Pakistan was provoked by a terrorist attack on parliament; in Ayodhya, the extremist World Hindu Council has been drumming up support for a plan to start building the Hindu temple on top of the demolished mosque. After losses in the state election in Uttar Pradesh last week, the Hindu nationalist BJP may be unable to defang its wilder supporters.