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Tuesday, 12 March, 2002, 18:28 GMT
Tight security in Ayodhya
Paramilitary soldiers flag march in Ayodhya
Ayodhya is teeming with police and soldiers
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By BBC News Online's Sanjoy Majumder in Ayodhya

The northern Indian town of Ayodhya has been placed under heavy security ahead of an expected showdown between hardline Hindus and the administration over a religious dispute.

The hardline Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council) has called on its supporters to gather in Ayodhya by 15 March to begin the process of building a temple at the site of a 16th century mosque that was demolished by Hindu extremists 10 years ago.

But the Indian Government has said it will not allow any activity at the disputed site, following recent sectarian riots in the state of Gujarat which led to more than 700 deaths.

Thousands of Hindu activists have been ordered to leave and, on the surface, the move seems to have succeeded.

VHP leaders appear ready to compromise but insist that some kind of symbolic ceremony will be held on Friday in defiance of the government's orders.

Approaches sealed

With the government taking a tough line, all roads leading to the ancient town, one of Hinduism's holiest, have been sealed.

VHP leaders addressing journalists in Ayodhya
Hindu hardliners: Determined to go ahead

Only vehicles with special permits are allowed through after a thorough screening.

The lanes and alleyways are teeming with security personnel, searching for any Hindu activists who may have slipped in.

On the banks of the Sarayu River, the security forces have taken up temporary positions, pitching their tents in front of the several hundred temples dedicated to different Hindu deities.

"They have been pouring in every day," said one local resident. "The numbers just seem to go up."

Nearly 1,000 policewomen are being deployed as well, since many women are expected to be among the activists.

"We have been here for three days," one policewoman said.

"We have searched all the temples and hotels to see if any one is hiding. No one can get through."

Disputed site

Nowhere is the security at its most stringent than in the approach to the disputed religious site.

A gathering of Hindu holymen in Delhi
Hindu holy men are facing extra scrutiny
With a forbidding perimeter wall of barbed wire, the narrow winding lanes leading to it are barricaded.

Devotees and others are allowed in, but empty handed. Not even keys are allowed in.

A Hindu holy man with his flowing beard is subjected to extra scrutiny.

"We are extremely sorry but we have our orders," is the firm reply to his protests.

VHP leader Ashok Singhal, addressing a hurriedly called news conference, describes the government's move as "madness".

"It is Hitler's reign in Ayodhya," Mr Singhal says. "And it is the ordinary residents who are suffering."

Muslim fear

But not everyone shares Mr Singhal's point of view.

Across from the disputed site is one of Ayodhya's Muslim quarters.

It is deserted, with nearly 90% of the town's Muslims having fled.

"Some 270 (Muslim) houses were attacked in 1992," says Mohammad Aslam, describing the events when the mosque was brought down by Hindu zealots nearly a decade ago.

"We are obviously insecure. We don't even trust the police, only the army can help us."

Local Muslim leader, Mohammad Hashim Ansari, is particularly incensed.

"They want to repeat the events of Gujarat here in Ayodhya," he says. "Why isn't the government doing anything to stop them?"

"Let the courts decide what is to be done," adds Mohammad Aslam.

"We will accept the outcome and even support the building of a temple if that is the verdict."

See also:

10 Mar 02 | South Asia
Muslim leaders reject Ayodhya plan
09 Mar 02 | South Asia
Call for army at Ayodhya site
07 Mar 02 | South Asia
Hindu hardliners 'will abide by court'
05 Mar 02 | South Asia
Hindu hardliners 'agree compromise'
14 Feb 02 | Country profiles
Country profile: India
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