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Last Updated: Wednesday, 26 January, 2005, 13:01 GMT
Arson probe into India stampede
Villager looking at dead bodies, Wai
The dead have been lined up near the temple for identification
Indian police say fires that triggered a deadly stampede by Hindu pilgrims in which more than 250 died were started deliberately by fellow pilgrims.

The authorities have announced an official inquiry into the stampede at the Mandhar Devi temple in the western state of Maharashtra.

The temple remains open but officials are trying to discourage new visitors as they are impeding relief efforts.

Up to 400,000 people were estimated to have been attending the pilgrimage.

The annual celebration, to worship a local goddess, Kalubai, is in the town of Wai, in a remote part of Maharashtra.

'Falling like sacks'

Local police chief Chandrakant Kumbhar said problems began on Tuesday when devotees inside the temple slipped on water from coconuts cracked open as part of the ritual worship.

Reports say some of them were then trampled by surging queues of worshippers trying to get inside the temple.

"When their relatives, who were still climbing the stairs, heard the news (of people being trampled) they became angry and set fire to some shops," Mr Kumbhar said, the Associated Press news agency reports.

In the ensuing chaos, witnesses say an overhead electricity cable was toppled and cylinders of cooking gas, stored in the shops, began exploding.

Hundreds of people fleeing the flames were forced into narrow passageways and crushed to death.

"The crowd began pushing and I saw people falling like sacks on top of each other," 45-year-old Namdeo Yerunkar told the Associated Press news agency.

At least 258 people are now said to have died in the crush, and more than 200 injured.

An earlier figure, giving more than 300 dead, has been revised after post-mortems, a police official told the AFP news agency.

Fire truck at temple (photo: Milind Wadekar)

Rescue workers are looking for bodies among the charred remnants of shops along the route to the temple, while police are trying to establish who was responsible for the fire.

Celebrations to mark India's Republic Day, which falls on Wednesday, have been cancelled in Maharashtra.

More pilgrims were arriving at the site on Wednesday, as relatives identify the many dead.

Most of the new arrivals are believed to be from villages too remote to have received news of Tuesday's stampede.

Safety problems

Festivals in India have a history of stampedes, often brought on by overcrowding and an absence of adequate safety measures.

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

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.

See scenes of chaos at the remote temple

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