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Death Toll Hits 62 In India’s Food-Poisoning Mystery

August 20, 1996

BOMBAY, India (AP) _ The death toll in a food-poisoning mystery in India climbed to 62 Monday, as doctors and police tried to determine whether it was a case of mass murder or simple negligence.

The investigation began Aug. 7, when nearly 200 men fell ill after eating at one of the many eateries operating in shacks along the roads of Bhiwandi, a textile town north of Bombay.

Investigators soon found that rice at the canteen contained datura, a poisonous weed.

But some doctors have questioned whether the small amount detected could have killed so many people, leaving them delirious, vomiting and gasping for breath.

One of the first to die was Ahmed Bashir Ansari, 60, the owner of the restaurant. Police soon arrested two of his workers _ his son, Iqbal Ahmad Ansari, 26, and a 15-year-old cook who had fled and was found several days later in his village in another state.

The son has been detained on charges of negligence and food adulteration, local police commissioner O.P. Bali said. The teen-ager was placed in a juvenile detention center.

The boy fled the scene after the customers became ill. Bali said the boy says he didn’t know what killed the customers.

Bali said Ahmed Bashir Ansari had resisted pressure by the owners of the hundreds of other eateries in Bhiwandi to raise prices _ creating speculation that the deaths at his restaurant could have been the work of his rivals.

But investigators and doctors still aren’t sure what killed the victims, since only a small amount of datura was found in the food at the canteen, Bali said.

He said investigators may find that the deaths simply resulted from careless food-handling.

Most of the victims were male migrant workers, the primary customers of the hundreds of eateries in the Bhiwandi.

The kitchens of roadside canteens around India often are filthy and lack refrigeration, and customers sometimes suffer stomach disorders from spoiled food.

But rarely are the symptoms as severe as they were in Bhiwandi or the death tolls so high from a single eating spot.

Doctors and health officials in Maharashtra state, where the deaths occurred, discovered the traces of datura, which grows wild in India. They then sent samples of the food to England, the United States and Hong Kong for further tests.

Another victim died Monday at J.J. Hospital, where 22 others remain in critical condition. The hospital discharged two other victims Monday

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