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Indian violence spreads in wake of train fire that killed at least 58

Updated:
(AHMADABAD, India) - Riots swept the Indian state of Gujarat on Thursday, with Hindu mobs attacking Muslim houses, blocking roads and burning hotels and cars in the wake of a Muslim mob attack that left 58 dead on a train carrying Hindu nationalists.

Police were on alert across the country. The national government pleaded for restraint, fearful that sectarian violence could spread quickly in this nation of more than 1 billion, whose birth 54 years ago was marked by Hindu-Muslim-Sikh fighting that killed nearly a million people.

In the state's commercial center, Ahmadabad, officers fired tear gas at a Hindu mob descending on Muslim houses. The crowd wouldn't stop, so police fired rifles, injuring six people, three of them seriously, officials at the Civil Hospital told The Associated Press.

For hours, outnumbered police stood watching or occasionally fired tear gas as gangs of hundreds burned hotels, gas pumps, cars, restaurants and shops in the city. They made bonfires of the looted goods and blocked the roads.

Rioters killed three people, including a truck driver dragged from his vehicle, police said. Smoke billowed over the skyline and police halted all traffic coming into the city.

On the highways, gangs of young men with sticks and iron rods halted cars to ask whether Muslims or Hindus were inside. Hindus were allowed to proceed. Roadside tea and tobacco stalls, owned by Muslims, were burned to the ground.

The Fire Brigade said 50 buildings had burned in Ahmadabad, most of them Muslim-owned.

Curfew was ordered in several parts of Ahmadabad as rioting spread across a 185-mile swathe of Gujarat, from Rajkot to Godhra, where the train fire occurred. Police were taking little action.

Arson and stone throwing were reported in many parts of Ahmadabad, as gangs of Hindu nationalists went through neighborhoods chanting, ``Hail, Rama,'' in honor of one of their chief gods.

The Hindu groups threatened shopkeepers who had not closed in compliance with a strike call to protest Wednesday's train attack in the town of Godhra, in which mostly Hindus were burned to death or suffocated from smoke. Fourteen children were among the dead, and 43 people were injured, 20 of them requiring hospital treatment.

The state government, run by the party of Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, had supported the call for a shutdown.

Police said 63 people, including two municipal councilors in Godhra, had been arrested on murder charges in the train attack.

The state's chief minister, Narendra Modi, a member of the prime minister's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, called the train burning an ``organized terrorist attack'' and said steps would be taken ``so that no one dare repeat such a thing in future.''

In three towns in the state, seven Muslims were stabbed to death overnight, and curfews were ordered.

On the 95-mile route from Godhra to Ahmadabad, roadside businesses were burned and village boys used tires to barricade the roads.

``Some 2,000 people came here around midnight, carrying petrol and kerosene and burned half a dozen shops belonging to Muslims, and a spice factory,'' said a police officer, J. Chaudhary, near the village of Udalpur. ``The Muslim owners weren't there.''

The violence began Wednesday when Muslim tea vendors and their neighbors in Godhra stoned a train carrying Hindu nationalists and set it on fire. They killed 58 people, after slogan-chanting passengers refused to pay for snacks during a five-minute halt, the rail station chief, J.K. Katija, said Thursday.

Tension had been building for five years in Godhra and other towns in Gujarat, said police chief Raju Bhargava. Hindu nationalists travel by train across Gujarat to and from a religious site in Ayodhya, in northern Uttar Pradesh state, where the World Hindu Council vows to build a temple to the Hindu god Rama on the ruins of the 16th century Muslim mosque that Hindus tore down in 1992. In subsequent nationwide riots, 2,000 people died.

Bhargava said the Hindu activists often refused to pay for food taken from Muslim vendors at the stations, and brandished sticks as they shouted slogans, causing resentment and anger to build up.

The Hindu Council rejected the prime minister's plea Wednesday to help keep peace by dropping the plan to erect the Rama temple, beginning March 15, in defiance of court orders. Vajpayee has strongly supported the temple construction, but said the government opposes it being done by force.

Sixteen-year-old Gayatri Panchal saw her mother, father and two sisters die before her eyes in the train fire as they returned home after participating in a religious ceremony at Ayodhya.

``We were sleeping and I opened my eyes when I felt the heat. I saw flames everywhere. My mother was in flames, her clothes were on fire,'' she said. ``Someone pulled me out of the compartment and then I saw my father's body being taken out. He was covered in black. Then I fainted.''

Rajendra Singh, the state police superintendent in Uttar Pradesh, where the disputed Ayodhya site is located, said 10,000 paramilitary would be on duty by Thursday night.

No vehicle was moving in the town, where about 20,000 Hindu activists have gathered, praying and preparing to begin building the temple.

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