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India's religious violence spreads through rural villages in Gujarat state

(AHMADABAD, India) - Mob burnings, shootings and other violence between Hindus and Muslims spread through villages in India's Gujarat state Saturday even as soldiers enforced a fearful peace in larger cities.

The death toll in India's worst religious strife in a decade stood at 415 after police said Hindus stormed the village of Sardarpura and set houses and shops ablaze by lighting fires near cooking gas containers. Twenty-seven Muslims died, police officials said on condition of anonymity.

In the town of Vadodra, at least seven Muslims were burned to death inside the bakery where they worked. In Himmatnagar, police fired on Hindu and Muslim groups fighting each other with guns and knives, resulting in 11 deaths, police said.

``The violence is spreading from village to village. If nothing is done to stop it, God knows what will happen to thousands and thousands of people,'' said Asad Madhani, president of the Jamiat-ul Ulema-e-Hind, an association of Muslim clerics.

Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee appealed for peace and restraint in a TV address Saturday. It was the second appeal in four days from Vajpayee, who rarely makes such appearances.

President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan, India's longtime rival and a Muslim-majority country, called for better protection of India's Muslim minority. ``The carnage must be brought to an end,'' he said in a written statement.

In Ahmadabad, the state's commercial capital and the worst-hit city, Muslims and Hindus warily wandered their neighborhoods to survey the damage. Charred bodies lay in the streets along with burned furniture and vehicles.

Residents in this city of 3.5 million people blamed the violence _ which continued in Ahmadabad's industrial areas, slums and suburbs _ on extremist groups, and said they were stunned by how things had gotten out of hand.

``I can give you a gentleman's promise that Muslims did not want this,'' said Iqbal G. Shaikh, a Muslim businessman whose middle-class neighborhood of 150 families lost homes and shops, but not lives. ``And I tell you in the name of God that Hindus did not want this.''

The violence is the worst in India since 1993, when 800 people were killed during Hindu-Muslim riots in Bombay. Outside Gujarat state, the country remained relatively calm.

Soldiers fanned out in the cities of Ahmadabad, Baroda and Rajkot with orders to shoot rioters on sight.

Government officials insisted the situation was under control, even though district police officers told The Associated Press of widespread burnings, stabbings and shootings in outlying towns.

The officers said they had been ordered not to talk to reporters. Independent television news stations, including CNN, were blacked out in the state after Chief Minister Narendra Modi accused them of showing gory and provocative pictures.

At Ahmadabad's Civil Hospital, Hindu and Muslim victims said they were shocked by the explosion of religious anger.

Hussain Mullah Baksh, a 74-year-old Muslim, said Hindus pulled him from his motorbike, doused him with gasoline and set him on fire Thursday. He was being treated Saturday for burns over half of his body.

``I was attacked by my Hindu neighbors whom I know, though we were not friends,'' Baksh said.

Ramji Bhai, a 25-year-old Hindu auto-rickshaw driver, lying on a bed nearby, said a gasoline bomb was thrown at him from the roof of a mosque, burning the lower half of his body. He said he tore off his burning clothes and ran naked to a house for help.

State government officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the death toll in four days of carnage was 415. The state police control room put the toll at 383, but the government has a history of underreporting death tolls in calamities.

The bloodshed began Wednesday when Muslims burned a train carrying Hindus returning from the northern town of Ayodhya, where a temple is planned on the site of a 16th-century mosque that was razed by Hindus in 1992. The temple plans have long been a cause of Hindu-Muslim tension.

The federal government has been criticized for not reacting sooner to calm the politically powerful World Hindu Council, which is spearheading the temple campaign.

The head of the Hindu Volunteer Corps _ the ideological source of most Hindu nationalist groups _ called for an end to the rioting on Friday, referring to Muslims as his ``brethren.''

``I make a fervent appeal to all countrymen that they actively come forward to stop this senseless violence,'' K.C. Sudarshan said.

Among the dead were 47 people killed by police since Friday in Gujarat, said Chief Minister Narendra Modi, the state's top elected official. Two policemen were also killed.

Modi has come under fire for suggesting that some Muslims brought their deaths upon themselves. He insisted Saturday that the police were doing all they could.

``I say with full responsibility that, after the train incident, the government has taken tough measures,'' Modi said.

A curfew was imposed in 37 towns across the state. Home Secretary K. Nityanandam said 1,587 people had been arrested _ including 63 charged with murder in the train attack.

The violence came as Gujarat state was still recovering from a devastating earthquake last year.

Gujarat is the home state of Mohandas K. Gandhi, India's beloved independence leader who struggled for reconciliation between India's Hindu majority and Muslims amid riots that killed nearly 1 million people after independence in 1947. About 12 percent of India's 1 billion people are Muslims; Hindus comprise 87 percent.

Some 20,000 Hindu activists have gathered in Ayodhya to pray for the temple construction, which was to begin March 15. About 10,000 paramilitary troops have been deployed there to prevent violence. The government halted trains to keep more activists from arriving and locked the gates of a workshop where parts of the temple were being assembled.
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