PATNA, India (AP) _ Nearly 100 members of a private militia raided a village in eastern India today, killing at least 12 lower-caste villagers, police said today.

The latest carnage came in revenge for the killing of 35 upper-caste Hindus by Communist rebels last month in a continuing caste war in Bihar, India's most lawless state.

Members of the Ranbir Sena private militia attacked two sections of the village of Sindani in the Gaya district, 530 miles southeast of New Delhi, said T.P. Sinha, a Bihar police official.

The dead included four women, some of whom were sleeping in their homes, police said. The hands of some victims were bound together before they were shot, they said.

The assailants escaped even though police have been combing the area for the past month to track down Ranbir Sena activists.

The militia has targeted Dalits, which means ``oppressed ones,'' the lowest group in the hierarchy of Hinduism. Most Dalits are poor, uneducated farm laborers.

India's caste system is an age-old Hindu social structure that can determine anything from where a lower-caste person works to where he or she lives, worships or drinks water. Although India's constitution outlaws discrimination by caste, the system remains prevalent in rural areas.

Communist groups have been trying to organize laborers in Bihar to improve their lives and secure them land, a challenge to the social order that the Ranbir Sena has answered with violence.

The caste killings prompted the Hindu nationalist-led federal government to fire the state government, run by a socialist party, last month. The federal government said Bihar had disintegrated into total lawlessness.

But the government was later restored because Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's party did not have the support for the necessary parliamentary ratification of the federal takeover of Bihar.