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Last Updated: Tuesday, 25 January, 2005, 16:58 GMT
Scores killed in Indian stampede
Indians standing by charred buildings at the temple complex
Fire destroyed many of the shops and buildings near the temple
Up to 300 Hindu pilgrims are feared dead and hundreds injured during a stampede at a Hindu festival in India.

The stampede happened during a pilgrimage to the remote Mandhar Devi temple in western Maharashtra state.

Officials say thousands panicked during a religious procession after a fire broke out in roadside stalls.

Many pilgrims were crushed and burned to death as the fire forced crowds into a narrow stairway leading to the hilltop temple.

The stampede occurred near the village of Wai, more than 200km (125 miles) south of Mumbai (Bombay), where pilgrims congregate every year at the temple to venerate a Hindu goddess.

There are more than 100 dead bodies lying around. It is utter mayhem here
Indian television correspondent

This year more than 300,000 people had gathered, and the narrow path leading to the temple was jammed with worshippers, many of them women and children.

Crushed and charred

Accounts vary as to what caused the stampede. One local police inspector blamed a fire caused by an electrical short circuit in a makeshift shop.

Other witnesses said pilgrims began burning and looting roadside stalls after they became frustrated at long delays in gaining entry to the temple site.

The procession quickly became panicked and the narrow passage was jammed as crowds surged forward to avoid the flames.

A local police chief, V N Deshmukh, put the death toll at more than 300 and said that more than 200 were taken by bus to local hospitals, the AFP news agency reported.

District official Subarrao Patil told Reuters that 250 to 300 people died in the crush.

"This does not include the people who may have been charred to death in the shops that have gutted nearby in the fire," he said.

"People got suffocated in the crush. Bodies are still lying there," shopkeeper Sanjay Mistry, who was among the pilgrims, told AFP.

"There was a lot of chaos and cries of 'many people are dead'," he added.

Difficult to police

Stampedes are not uncommon at Hindu religious festivals, which often attract millions of worshippers and are notoriously difficult to police.

The event at Wai takes place every year during the night of a full moon.

Pilgrims started arriving on Monday, ahead of the full moon on Tuesday night.

At least 39 people died in August 2003 when devotees panicked on the banks of a holy river 175km north-east of Bombay.

In 1999, 51 pilgrims died when a safety rope snapped at a Hindu shrine in southern India, and 50 were killed in 1986 in a stampede in the northern town of Haridwar.

In 1954, some 800 are thought to have died in the northern city of Allahabad - the worst such incident recorded.

The stampede may have been triggered by a fire

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