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Saturday, March 2, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Hindu attacks rout Muslims from homes; death toll nears 300

The Associated Press

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AHMADABAD, India — Hindu attackers burned Muslims in their homes and stalked them in the streets yesterday, pushing the death toll in India's worst religious violence in a decade to nearly 300 before about 1,000 soldiers arrived here and appeared to restore calm.

A curfew has been imposed in 37 towns across the state.

Bodies blackened by fire lay in the streets here, along with burned-out furnishings, broken motorbikes, shoes and shredded clothes.

Before troops arrived, Hindu and Muslim youths clashed, wielding knives and swords and hurling gasoline bombs, stones and burning tires at each other from rooftops. Police fired, killing six people and wounding 70, said Deputy Police Commissioner R.J. Savani.

Elsewhere in Gujarat state, armed Hindus entered Pandarvada, a community of 50 Muslim families. The attackers forced residents into their homes, where they huddled together as the attackers set the houses on fire, officials said.

"We know of 30 deaths so far, it could be higher than that," said Jayanti Ravi, the district administrator.

Sleeping residents trapped

The day had begun with another brutal attack. Before dawn, several hundred Hindus set fire to a Muslim shantytown in Ahmadabad, trapping residents asleep inside. Sixty-five people in the homes were killed, including eight children, Deputy Police Commissioner P.B. Gondya said.

Clashes broke out in several other states across India, but the bloodshed was largely confined to Gujarat in western India, and did not spread across this vast nation despite a call for a general strike by Hindu nationalists.

The Gujarat violence began when Muslims set fire to a train carrying Hindu activists in Godhra on Wednesday, killing 58 people and touching off rioting that has left 237 dead. It is the worst religious bloodshed since 1993 riots in Bombay that killed 800 people.

Like those riots, the latest violence is linked to plans to build a Hindu temple on the site of a mosque destroyed by Hindu nationalists in 1992 in northern India. Most of the victims from Wednesday's train attack were Hindu activists returning from the disputed site in Ayodhya, where they plan to begin building the temple this month.

Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee said yesterday he would "deal firmly and effectively" with spiraling tensions. Vajpayee's Bharatiya Janata Party has supported building of the temple, though he opposes the activists' plans to do so in defiance of court orders.

Savani, the deputy police chief in Ahmadabad, said Muslims had begun retaliating against Hindus. Following government policy, officials would not say publicly how many of the dead were Muslim and how many Hindu.

Police accused of bias

Muslims in many areas said police were favoring Hindus. Muslims streamed into hospitals, most for treatment of stab wounds but others simply for refuge.

"Police can't protect each lane and bylane," said Police Commissioner P.C. Pandey, responding to criticism of his forces.

In New Delhi, the typically tough-talking chief cleric of India's largest mosque urged Muslims to remain peaceful.

"If the Hindus raise a slogan, we will not answer with a slogan," said Imam Syed Ahmed Bukhari, his voice booming over the public address system at the medieval red-sandstone mosque. "If they provoke you, you will not be provoked. This will be our victory."

Muslim leader meets premier

Bukhari, who met with Vajpayee yesterday, said he would sit outside the prime minister's residence beginning today if the government did not ensure peace.

"It is a shame that the custodians of law are dancing a naked dance of barbarism," he said.

Mahesh Bhatt, a leading Indian filmmaker whose mother was Muslim and father Hindu, said the violence was a reminder that religious intolerance in India, where 80 percent of the population is Hindu, runs deep.

"Whenever you have deluded yourself that you have been freed of the religious biases your forefathers lived with, the poison that flowed in their veins, comes a fierce reminder like this," he said.

"Nothing is changed. The Indian mind is still shackled to its religious prejudices. We have not moved an inch away from that. Incidents like these just mirror the real soul of India."

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