(GODHRA, India) - A Muslim mob set fire to a train carrying Hindu nationalists home from a disputed religious site Wednesday, killing at least 55 people, officials said. Fearing religious strife could spread, the prime minister appealed for calm.
The fire gutted four coaches in early morning attack at a station in the western city of Godhra, district administrator Jayanti Ravi said. Fourteen children were among the dead. Officials said some 65 passengers had been injured, 38 of them in critical condition.
Smoke was still pouring from the train in the late afternoon as relief workers gingerly removed charred bodies piled on top of one another in the car, their limbs entangled.
The train was carrying about 2,500 Hindu nationalists returning from Ayodhya, a site in northeast India where activists plan to build a temple at the site of a 16th century Muslim mosque. The destruction of the mosque by Hindu nationalists in 1992 sparked nationwide riots that left 2,000 people dead.
Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee appealed to Hindu nationalists not to retaliate for the train attack. ``We need to protect Indian brotherhood at every cost,'' he said.
Across India, police in cities where Muslims and Hindus live close together began extra patrols.
Security was tightened in Muslim areas of Gujarat state, where the town is located, to prevent revenge attacks, and police had shoot-on-sight orders to prevent riots, said the state's home minister, Gordhan Zadaphia.
``Because of chances of retaliation we have already instructed our police officers to arrange special security cover for the Muslim population,'' Zadaphia said.
The World Hindu Council, to which the activists belonged, called for a statewide strike on Thursday. India's most powerful Hindu nationalist groups are strong in Gujarat, a relatively prosperous state where religious clashes are frequent, including attacks on Christians. Godhra, a town 450 miles southwest of New Delhi, has history of Hindu-Muslim clashes and a population that is 30 percent Muslim and the rest primarily Hindu.
After the attack, a 17-year-old boy was killed in Godhra when police fired guns and lobbed tear gas to disperse mobs who were looting shops and setting them on fire, officials said.
The coaches that were destroyed in the blaze were detached from the train at Godhra. The train went on to Vadodara, 60 miles to the south. When it arrived at that station, a crowd of Hindu nationalists began jeering and attacking Muslims as they got off the train. One man was stabbed to death, according to hospital officials, and several others were beaten with sticks.
Witnesses at Godhra said the Muslim mob was enraged by slogans shouted by the Hindu activists and attacked the train just after it left the station, about 6:30 a.m. First, they pelted stones, then set the cars ablaze, said Zadaphia, the Gujarat state official.
Raju Bhargav, Godhra's superintendent of police, and some witnesses said 100 Muslims had surrounded the train. Some activists on the train said the attackers numbered more than 2,000. Zadaphia said that five people had been detained for questioning.
More than 20,000 people have gathered in Ayodhya, 345 miles east of New Delhi, since the World Hindu Council announced it would begin constructing the temple by March 15, ignoring court orders banning construction at the site.
Most of the activists on the train were headed to its last stop, Ahmedabad.
Jaideep Patel, joint secretary of the World Hindu Council, said the assailants targeted the Hindu volunteers who had gone to Ayodhya. ``Once they identified three compartments in which there were about 160 volunteers, they threw containers of kerosene and petrol inside,'' Patel said.
Vajpayee on Wednesday called on the Council to drop their demands to build a temple.
``The solution to this problem will not come by a movement of this kind or by violence,'' he said. ``There are only two ways: by dialogue or leave it to the courts.''
Home Minister Lal Krishna Advani, a Hindu nationalist and one of three Cabinet ministers accused of inciting the crowds that razed the ancient mosque in 1992, also appealed for calm.
``I feel that what the (Council) is currently engaged in can only cause damage to the great movement,'' Advani was quoted as saying by the Press Trust of India.
Police chief Bhargav said there had been clashes between Hindus and Muslims during the Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha over the weekend in the nearby town of Baruch. The train attack could have been in retaliation for that, he said.
India has one of the world's largest Muslim populations - 120 million people among its 1 billion-plus population.