Violence rages over disputed holy site

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The tit-for-tat bloodletting that has gripped northern and western India since Wednesday stems from a dispute over plans to build a Hindu temple at Ayodhya, on the site of a mosque razed by Hindu extremists in 1992.

The destruction of the mosque triggered India's worst violence since partition, leaving more than 3,000 dead, mainly Muslims, in sectarian clashes between Hindus and the Muslim minority.

The site at Ayodhya is holy to Hindus and Muslims: Hindus believe that it is the birthplace of the god-king Rama, and have set up a camp where hundreds of stone masons are carving sandstone pillars for the new temple. The temple's supporters claim they are redressing past wrongs because the Mughal emperor, Babar, built the Babri Masjid mosque in 1528 on the site of a Hindu temple, but this is disputed by Muslims.

The mosque was annexed in 1859 by the British, who created separate Muslim and Hindu places of worship to put an end to the rising tensions between the two communities. In 1949, two years after partition, the gates were locked when Muslims claimed Hindu worshippers had placed deities of Lord Rama inside their worship area.

Later, a court ordered that the mosque's doors be unlocked. Hindu militants and Muslim mullahs drove to the town to set out their rival claims.

In 1984, the World Hindu Council launched a campaign to build a temple at the mosque site to honour the birthplace of Lord Rama, one of the most revered deities in Hinduism. Five years later, the first foundation stone was laid on land next to the disputed mosque. The dispute reached a climax in 1992 when Hindu zealots, with the support of Bharatiya Janata party (BJP), which was in opposition at the time, tore down the mosque with sledgehammers, crowbars and their bare hands.

The BJP rode to power in 1998 on a wave of Hindu nationalism. Since forming a coalition government led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee as Prime Minister, the party has sought to defuse the row by appealing to the World Hindu Council to stop its campaign.

All activity at the site has been frozen while a state court rules on the dispute. But the Hindu nationalists have set a deadline of 15 March to start construction and have vowed to push ahead on that date.