Train fire in western India leaves at least 55 dead

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Muslim attackers today set fire to a train carrying Hindu activists returning from a religious ceremony, killing at least 30 people, officials said.

District administrator Jayanti Ravi said there were about 75 passengers in the four coaches of the Sabarmati Express when it was set ablaze in Godhra in the western state of Gujarat. The coaches, she said, had been gutted.

One witness said the attackers numbered more than 2,000.

Ravi said she expected the death toll to rise. "We don't have the final figure yet, but we have counted at 30," she said.

Officials reported at least 38 injuries.

A senior state official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Muslims attacked the train at the station just as it was leaving Godhra, 95 miles southeast of Ahmadabad, the commercial capital of Gujarat.

The town of Godhra has a 30 per cent Muslim population and a history of frequent clashes between Hindus and Muslims.

The train was carrying activists belonging to a Hindu nationalist organization trying to build a temple on the site of a disputed mosque in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.

The World Hindu Council activists were returning to Gujarat after participating in religious ceremonies at Ayodhya, where Hindu nationalists plan to build a temple at the site of a 16th century Muslim mosque.

When the mosque was torn down by Hindus in 1992, it sparked nationwide riots between Hindus and Muslim and 2,000 people were killed.

More than 20,000 people have gathered in Ayodhya, 345 miles east of New Delhi, since the Council announced it would begin constructing the temple by March 15, ignoring court orders banning construction at the site.

The federal government has been taking steps in the last weeks to try to prevent a violent clash in Ayodhya.

Officials in Godhra said the Muslim mob, enraged by slogans shouted by the Hindu nationalists, attacked the train just after it left Godhra railway station at 6:30 a.m. local time. Initially they pelted stones at the train, and later set four coaches ablaze, said Gordhan Zadaphia, the state home minister.

There were reports of gunfire in the town, but they could not be immediately confirmed.

In the state capital, Gandhinagar, Gujarat Home Minister Gordhan Zadaphia told the State Assembly that shoot-on-sight orders had been issued to prevent any rioting from spreading. He said police reinforcements had been sent in.

Zadaphia said at least 38 people had been injured.

Firefighters were still battling the blaze four hours after it began.

He said those killed were members of the 2,500-strong group of volunteers from Gujarat who had gone to Ayodhya to show support for the new temple construction.

"These activists had stayed in Ayodhya for two days and were returning home when they were attacked," he said.