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Tuesday, 5 March, 2002, 10:35 GMT
Hindu leader in temple talks
Hindu holy men in Ayodhya
The government is hoping hardliners will listen
One of India's top Hindu leaders is to mediate fresh talks on Tuesday aimed at defusing religious tensions after the country's worst communal violence in a nearly a decade.

I believe a path will be found with his holy presence interceding over the issue.

VHP President Ashok Singhal

The Shankaracharya of Kanchi, Jayendra Saraswati, is to meet leaders of the hardline Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) at the centre of the dispute.

The VHP said on Monday it would press ahead with plans to build a temple in Ayodhya on the site of a razed mosque, despite the deaths of at least 500 people.

The Shankaracharya, who has emerged as chief mediator in the crisis, met Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee on Monday and Defence Minister George Fernandes early on Tuesday.

The talks in Delhi came as security forces restored an uneasy calm to the western state of Gujarat after several days of savage Hindu-Muslim violence.

Hopes for agreement

A state home ministry official said a total of 512 had been killed and nearly 800 injured in the violence so far, which has centred on the state's largest city, Ahmedabad.

Workers dig graves for Muslims in Ahmedabad
The death toll could rise sharply

But there are fears that the actual death toll could be much higher after sporadic clashes spread to rural areas of the state.

Most of the dead were Muslims targeted in revenge for an arson attack last Wednesday on a train carrying Hindu activists back from Ayodhya.

Hindu mobs went on the rampage after the attack, which killed nearly 60 Hindu activists.

According to the latest police figures, more than 1,500 houses were destroyed and more than 3,800 people were arrested.

Religious divide
Hindus: 81% of Indian population
Muslims: 12%
1992: Hindu groups destroy mosque in Ayodhya
2,000 killed in subsequent riots
Feb 2002: Hindus travelling back from Ayodhya attacked by Muslims
Backlash leaves about 500 dead

The government is hoping that the intervention of Mr Saraswati, who is from southern Tamil Nadu state, will avert a further cycle of retaliatory bloodshed.

There are four Shankaracharyas in India, based respectively in the north, south, east and west of the country.

"Everybody has respect for the Shankaracharya," VHP President Ashok Singhal was quoted as saying by the AFP news agency.

"I believe a path will be found with his holy presence interceding over the issue," he said.

Uneasy calm

The presence of large numbers of police and soldiers in Gujarat appears to have stopped the frenzy of killing, but there are still isolated cases of brutality where security forces have not been deployed.

Curfews remained in place but were slowly being eased as officials said there had been no major clashes in the past 24 hours

Muslim children
Muslims are still living in fear

Schools remained closed and Muslims were still too frightened to leave their homes or return to those they fled.

The central government has been strongly criticised for not sending in the army sooner to help bring the violence under control.

Tensions have been building since the VHP announced plans to construct the temple in Ayodhya, where militant Hindus tore down a mosque in 1992.

Mr Vajpayee, whose Bharatiya Janata Party has close links with the VHP, has been struggling to persuade the hardliners to postpone its campaign to build a new temple.

So far, he has had little success.

On Monday, VHP leader Param Hans Ramchandra Das said the campaign would "never" be called off, adding activists would start moving pillars to the site on 15 March.

Authorities have sealed off both Ayodhya and neighbouring Faizabad and trains have been diverted in an attempt to prevent an influx of activists.

See also:

04 Mar 02 | South Asia
Hindu hardliners firm on temple plan
04 Mar 02 | South Asia
Eyewitness: Muslims under siege
03 Mar 02 | South Asia
India violence 'under control'
02 Mar 02 | South Asia
Ravaged Ahmedabad limps back to life
01 Mar 02 | Media reports
Indian press shocked by bloodshed
14 Feb 02 | Country profiles
Country profile: India
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