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Friday, 1 March, 2002, 13:54 GMT
Indian troops try to stop bloodshed
Indian soldiers patrol in Ahmedabad
Authorities fear the violence could spread across India
Hundreds of troops have been deployed across the western Indian state of Gujarat in an attempt to quell the worst outbreak of Hindu-Muslim bloodshed in ten years.

At least 200 people have been killed since violence erupted on Wednesday, when a train-load of Hindu activists was attacked by a suspected Muslim mob.


As long as people divide themselves on the basis of religion, this problem will never be solved

Police said the clashes entered a new phase on Friday in Ahmedabad, the state's largest city, where gangs of Muslims fought running street battles with Hindu mobs.

Police shot dead five rioters on Friday morning in the city's Bapunagar area.

That incident came hours after 27 Muslims were burned to death by Hindus in a shantytown in an Ahmedabad suburb.

About 1,000 paramilitary troops were ordered in after Hindus across the state went on the rampage to avenge the arson attack on the train, which was carrying activists back from the disputed holy site of Ayodhya. The blaze killed 58 people.

Many of the dead belonged to the hardline Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) organisation, which said on Friday it might consider postponing plans to build a temple on the site of a 16th century mosque razed in 1992.

Unrest spreading

There are widespread fears that the latest clashes could trigger a repeat of the nationwide communal violence that followed the mosque's destruction.

A Hindu mob waves swords at a Muslim mob
Police say violence has entered a 'new phase'

Reports say the army has fanned out to curb violence in the Gujarati cities of Baroda, Rajkot and Surat.

The strife was also reported to be spreading to other parts of India on Friday.

Officials in Uttar Pradesh state said two Muslims were killed in separate incidents in the predominantly Muslim town of Aligarh early on Friday morning.

One Hindu boy in the western state of Rajasthan was killed when police opened fire in an attempt to curb unrest.

Some areas of India's commercial capital Bombay were shut down, following a call for a nationwide strike from the VHP.

VHP activists disrupted rail traffic, blocking the tracks and climbing onto trains. There were also reports of mobs pelting public transport vehicles with stones in the city's suburbs.

In the southern city of Hyderabad, Hindus smashed up several public buses and a crowd of Muslims stoned police during a protest march after Friday prayers, the French news agency AFP reported.

Government promise

Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee issued a statement saying his government would deal with the violence.

"The PM assures the people that the Central government would deal firmly and effectively with the situation in Gujarat and elsewhere in the country," AFP quoted the statement as saying.

Locator map

The statement was signed by Mr Vajpayee and opposition leaders folowing a meeting at the prime minister's residence.

Curfews have been imposed in cities across Gujarat and hundreds have been arrested, but opposition parties say the government dragged its heels in responding to the crisis.

Defence Minister George Fernandes, who has arrived in Ahmedabad to oversee the deployment, insisted any delays were purely logistical.

Police, who have been given orders to shoot rioters on sight, have also been widely criticised for opting at times to stand back and not interfere with the mobs.

Hardline offer

In Delhi, the VHP's senior vice president, Giriraj Kishore, told the BBC that the 15 March deadline given by the group to start construction on the temple in Ayodhya could be changed.

But he said this could only happen if Mr Vajpayee gave a written assurance that land near the disputed site would be handed over to the group.

Indian police
Police imposed curfews in 26 cities in Gujarat

Correspondents say the VHP's latest move is not a shift in stance since it restates its position - that land surrounding the disputed site in Ayodhya currently under the control of the government should be handed over to it.

Mr Vajpayee says the issue must be decided in the current lengthy court battle over the site, which he has promised to speed up.

Meanwhile, tensions remain highest in Ahmedabad, where our correspondent described the atmosphere as frightening and lawless.

Deputy Police Commissioner RJ Savani told the Associated Press news agency that Muslims had started to defend themselves.

"All through Thursday we were busy trying to protect the minority community (Muslims) from attacks from Hindus," he was quoted as saying.

"But since this morning the retaliation has started. It has now turned to group clashes," he said.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Jill McGivering
"The death toll still isn't known"
Manzoor Moghal, Federation of Muslim Organisations
"The killing of Hindus is condemned by us unequivocally"
President of the VHP Vishnu Hari Dalmya
"We never thought the muslims would start physical assault at this time"
See also:

26 Feb 02 | South Asia
Vajpayee firm on Ayodhya
25 Feb 02 | South Asia
Militants converge on Ayodhya
14 Feb 02 | Country profiles
Country profile: India
01 Mar 02 | South Asia
Eyewitness: Bloodshed in Gujarat
01 Mar 02 | South Asia
In pictures: Troops in Gujarat
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