Maoists blamed for rail crash that leaves 71 dead

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The Independent Online

An overnight passenger train derailed yesterday in eastern India, triggering a crash with an oncoming cargo train that killed at least 71 people and injured another 200. Maoist rebels are suspected of causing the disaster.

Survivors described a night of screaming and chaos after the derailment and said it took rescuers more than three hours to reach the scene. The two trains were knotted together in a mass of mangled red and blue metal along a rural stretch of track near the small town of Sardiha, about 90 miles west of Calcutta in West Bengal state.

Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram said that a section of the railway tracks had been cut, but "whether explosives were used is not yet clear".

Bhupinder Singh, the top police official in West Bengal, said posters from the People's Committee Against Police Atrocities, a group local officials believe is closely tied to the Maoists, had been found at the scene, taking responsibility for the attack. However, a spokesman for the group denied any role.

The area is an isolated rural stronghold of India's Maoist rebels, known as Naxalites, who have stepped up attacks in recent months and had called for a four-day general strike starting yesterday. Earlier this month, the rebels ambushed a bus in central India, killing 31 police officers and civilians.

The rebels, who have tapped into the rural poor's growing anger at being left out of India's economic gains, are now present in 20 of the country's 28 states and have up to 20,000 fighters, according to the Home Ministry.

Nearly 10 hours after the blast, railway police and paramilitary soldiers were using blowtorches and cables to try to reach at least a dozen passengers still trapped in the wreckage, said AP Mishra, general manager of the railway system in that area.

Sher Ali, a 25-year-old Mumbai factory worker, was travelling with his wife, two children and his brother's family when they were jerked awake by a loud thud. A moment later, their car was tossed from the track, he said.

"My sister-in-law was crushed when the coach overturned. We saw her dying, but we couldn't do anything to help her," he said. The rest of the family survived, though a 10-year-old nephew was badly injured and hospitalised.

The passenger train was travelling from Calcutta to the Mumbai suburb of Kurla when 13 cars derailed. A cargo train then hit three of the cars from the other direction. A railway spokesman said 71 people were dead and it was likely the toll would rise as search and rescue operations continued.