After blasts, India's leader appeals for calm

AFP , MALEGAON, INDIA

Sun, Sep 10, 2006 - Page 5

Relatives buried their dead yesterday after three bombs outside a mosque and graveyard killed at least 31 people and injured nearly 300 in the latest sectarian attack to rock India.

The blasts targeted Muslim worshippers leaving the mosque in the religiously divided town of Malegaon in western India, the scene of previous clashes between Hindus and Muslims.

Political leaders appealed for calm as Muslims kept an overnight vigil on Shab-e-Barat, the Night of Blessing, when ancestors are remembered and prayers offered at their graves.

Sonia Gandhi, the president of the ruling Congress Party and Home Minister Shivraj Patil visited the site of the blasts and later saw some of the 277 injured in an area hospital.

The attacks came two months after seven bombs, believed to have targeted Hindus, ripped through train carriages in Mumbai killing 186. That attack was blamed on Islamic militants.

Nobody has claimed responsibility for Friday's bloodshed, when an estimated 2,500 people had gathered in a square outside the mosque.

Television networks showed emotional survivors demanding bombers be hanged whether "Hindu or Muslim."

Police declined to be drawn into a discussion about who was responsible.

"Investigations have started. As they progress, we will let you know," said state police chief P.S. Pasricha.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called on citizens to remain calm.

"The prime minister has condemned these attacks on the lives of innocent citizens. He has appealed for peace and communal harmony," his office said in a statement.

The bombs, at least one of which was mounted on a bicycle, went off as the faithful left the Nurani Mosque after Friday prayers.

Television pictures showed men and boys trampling on bloodied bodies as they battled to escape through a tunnel leading from the walled mosque compound.

Bystanders hauled children to safety as survivors loaded bodies into sheets and onto hand carts.

Hospital staff were under pressure to finish post-mortems so they could bury the dead during Shab-e-Barat, a holy time for Islam, two weeks ahead of the fasting month of Ramadan.

Doctors said most of the injuries were from flying metal splinters packed into the bombs.

All of the dead were from blast injuries and not the stampede, said Malegaon chief health officer Bharat Wagh

"All of the deaths are attributed to blast injuries. Five are unidentified," he said.

Confusion remained over the number of the dead, with some police and state politicians putting the toll at 37.

Wagh said 31 died and 277 were injured.

"Not more than five to seven are seriously injured, but they are also stable now," he said.

Extra police were brought in to guard the graveyard yesterday. They were also posted on street corners after sporadic violence flared. Officers were stoned by an angry mob after the blasts.

In New Delhi, the national government alerted state administrations to prevent outbreaks of violence between Hindus and Muslims.

Four months ago anti-terrorist police seized explosives and guns in Malegaon, some 240km north of Mumbai, in a swoop on a suspected Islamic militant cell.

Eleven people died in Malegaon in 2001 during clashes between police and demonstrators protesting against air-strikes by the US in Afghanistan.

The town formerly was known as a wealthy textile center, but a slump in the industry has caused high unemployment.

Earlier this week, Singh had said intelligence agencies warned of further attacks in India that were likely to target religious centers and vital installations.

The country has been hit by a series of bomb attacks blamed on Islamic militants, including the holy Hindu city of Varanasi in March and the bombings of New Delhi shopping markets in October last year.

The Malegaon blasts came four days before verdicts are to be announced for 123 defendants in a long-running trial linked to 1993 bomb attacks in Mumbai.

Those attacks killed more than 250 people and were blamed on Islamic militants.