Furious mob attacks driver after dozens killed when train runs over Hindu pilgrims in India

Carriages were set on fire and rescue workers prevented from reaching scene in state of Bihar

Cooch Behar

The authorities in northern India are trying to restore calm after up to 40 Hindu pilgrims were feared to have been killed today after they were struck by a passing train. An angry mob then attacked the driver, set fire to the carriages and prevented rescue workers from reaching the scene.

India's prime minister, Manmohan Singh, appealed for calm and asked that emergency personnel be allowed to do their work after a crowd of around 5,000 people gathered at the station in Dhamara Ghat, in the state of Bihar.

For several hours after the incident, flames and smoke could reportedly be seen pouring from the train coaches that had been set alight. The crowds prevented local officials and firefighters from getting to the scene.

Today marked the last day a month of prayers at the nearby Katyayani temple and many of the people - devotees of the Hindu god Shiva - had been returning from early morning devotions. Officials said that at least 35 people were killed as they crossed the tracks but that it was difficult to be precise because many of the bodies had been dismembered.

A local politician, Dinesh Chandra Yadav, told reporters that the train, the Rajyarani Express, was on route to Patna and passed the station at around 50mph shortly before 9am. Officials said the train was not supposed to stop at Dhamara Ghat and had been given clearance to pass. However, it seems some pilgrims believed that if they waited on the tracks they could stop the train.

In the aftermath of the accident, the train stopped a few hundreds yards further down the track. It was at that point that angry crowds seized the driver of the train and beat him. On Monday night he was said to be in a critical condition in hospital.

The mob then got all the passengers out of the train and set some coaches on fire. Groups of young men also smashed the windows of two other trains that were in the station.

Police said the state government was sending additional forces to the area, but their movement was hampered because railway authorities had shut down train traffic on tracks leading to Dhamara Ghat. The remote area is difficult to reach by road.

One passenger, Kumar Ashutosh, told the Associated Press, that after the pilgrims were hit the driver threw on the brakes.

"Soon, groups of people began running toward the engine. They asked us to get down from the train," he said. "Some of them pulled out the driver and his assistant and began beating them."

He added: "I had woken up and was sitting near the window, when all this happened. There were crowds of people on the platform and some on the track. It all happened so fast."

Railway officials said a rescue train on its way to Dhamara Ghat had to be halted at Saharsa because the tracks were blocked.

India's state-owned railway network is vast. It operates 9,000 passenger trains and carries some 18m passengers every day.

Yet accidents are commonplace, particularly at crossing points and stations where people frequently decline to use bridges or underpasses to reach the other side of the tracks. Last year, railway officials said train accidents in India had killed 1,220 people over the past five years.

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