Hundreds Killed in Indian Religious Violence

Religious violence continued in the western state of Gujarat Saturday despite army troops having orders to shoot rioters on sight. Hindus torched Muslim homes, bringing the death toll to 415 since the latest wave of violence began.

Roaming groups of Hindus set fire to stores in at least three neighborhoods and blocked fire trucks, according to officials. Muslims with burns or wounds flooded into hospitals for treatment and refuge. In Vadodra, a bakery fire killed at least seven Muslims, police said.

Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee called the spreading violence a "blot" on the nation's reputation.

The recent clashes began Wednesday when Muslims set fire to a train carrying Hindus from the northern town of Ayodhya, killing 58. A temple is planned in Ayodhya on the site of a 16th-century mosque that was razed by Hindus in 1992.

The destruction of the mosque ten years ago sparked riots that killed 2,000. One year later, religious riots in Bombay killed 800. About 12 percent of India's 1 billion people are Muslims, while Hindus comprise 82 percent.

Wednesday's attack triggered retaliation by some militant Hindus. On Friday, at least 122 Muslims were killed when Hindus set fire to their homes in three separate attacks in Ahmadabad and two villages.

Some Muslims tell stories of police standing by while Muslim men, women, and even children are murdered by crowds with swords and clubs; state officials deny those reports.

In the predominantly Muslim neighborhood of Shapur, Muslim residents said Saturday that police did not intervene when 7,000 Hindus went on an arson spree on Friday, setting fire to homes.

"Instead of protecting us, they were supporting the mob," said Rafi Ahmad, an insurance officer for the state, his voice trembling.

A crowd of Hindu residents at a dairy kiosk in Ahmadabad blamed muslims for the violence, chanting, "It's the Muslims' fault! It's the Muslims' fault!"

About 10,000 security forces are deployed in Ayodhya, where the World Hindu Council plans to build a temple over the demolished mosque. Hindus claim the site is the birthplace of the god Rama.

The Council plans to start temple construction on March 15, spokesman Veereshwar Dwivedi said Friday. So far, 7,000 Hindu activists have gathered in Ayodhya, and 10,000 security forces are deployed in the town. Ayodhya has been sealed off to prevent more activists from gathering.

State government officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the death toll in four days of carnage was 415 including those killed in the train and 47 killed by police.

The state police list the toll at 383, but the government has a history of under-reporting death tolls.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.