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Sunday, November 7, 1999 Published at 14:01 GMT

World: South Asia

Diwali exacts heavy death toll

Twenty-five people died when the fire ripped through Sonepat's market

Fifty-five people have died in fires in northern India during celebrations of the Hindu festival of Diwali.

At least 45 people died when a fire gutted 17 shops selling fireworks in Sonepat, 50km (30 miles) northwest of Delhi, on Saturday.

Similar fires in the city of Amritsar in Punjab killed three people, while a blaze destroyed shops in the Ghaziabad district in Uttar Pradesh, killing seven people.

[ image:  ]
Diwali, or the festival of light, marks the victory of the Hindu god Rama over the demon king Ravana in Hindu mythology.

The holiday, which marks the start of a new year, is celebrated with fireworks, lighting of lamps and feasting.

Officials say enforcement of fire safety laws often is lax during Diwali as shops and small traders stock fire crackers, often without a licence.

Each year, firefighters battle thousands of fires across India during the festival.

Shops gutted

In Sonepat, police recovered 25 bodies from one shop selling plastic goods and fireworks after people apparently took shelter from the blaze and closed the metal shutters behind them.

Mahesh Bansal, who lost his wife and two young children, said: "My whole world has perished in the sea of fire."

[ image: The festival is celebrated with fireworks and feasting]
The festival is celebrated with fireworks and feasting
Police spokesman Sant Ram said the victims, including two owners of the shop, died of asphyxiation as the smoke filled the building.

At least 13 people were hospitalised with burns and many others were taken to hospitals in Delhi.

One policeman was killed and another suffered serious burns when trying to rescue people.

Several concrete walls collapsed as fireworks exploded.

Police speculated that an electrical short circuit in one of the shops may have caused the blaze.

In Amritsar, a fire also believed to have been started by an electrical short-circuit gutted 70 shops.

[ image: Many fireworks are sold without a licence]
Many fireworks are sold without a licence
Panicked shoppers ran from the market as the shops selling fireworks exploded.

Seven fire engines battled the flames for more than four hours.

In the Kashmiri city of Jammu, 36 firecracker shops set up inside a stadium for Diwali festivities caught fire and were reduced to ashes.

No casualties were reported but goods worth thousands of dollars were destroyed.

Another fire was reported in the city of Jullander in Punjab, in which some shops were damaged. One 10-year-old boy was injured when firecrackers exploded near him.

Fatal bus crash

Meanwhile, at least 54 people were killed and 17 seriously injured when a bus skidded and plunged into a gorge in the Kathua district.

Police said the driver lost control of the vehicle due to a mechanical failure and skidded off the road while negotiating a sharp turn.

Most of the passengers were local government officials who were returning home to celebrate Diwali.

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