Government Forces Fire on Hindus, Killing 5, Wounding 20
AYODHYA, India (AP) _ Government forces fired on thousands of Hindu fundamentalists who broke through police barricades Tuesday and forced their way into a heavily guarded mosque. Five Hindus were killed and 20 wounded.
At least 26 people were killed in other parts of India as the decades-old dispute between Hindus and Moslems over ownership of the site came to a head.
The controversy has left at least 138 people dead in the past week, brought Prime Minister V.P. Singh’s government close to collapse and further strained already tense relations between India’s Hindu majority and Moslem minority. Singh, who opposes the Hindu campaign to replace the 16th-century Moslem mosque, on Tuesday repeated his offer to resign if his party thought it would help contain the sectarian violence. He made a similar offer Monday.
Hindu fundamentalists had said they would start construction Tuesday on a temple to the god Rama on the site occupied by the mosque. The government said it would block any attempt to destroy the small, one-story shrine and arrested 90,000 supporters of the fundamentalist World Hindu Council in the past week.
On Tuesday, 10,000 Hindus stormed police barricades outside the disputed shrine. Police first used tear gas and bamboo canes to beat back the crowd.
Then, after several hours of clashes as the crowds pushed closer and closer to the mosque, the police fired rifles.
Reporters saw four bodies, but a government spokesman in New Delhi later said five people were killed. Witnesses said at least 20 people were wounded.
S.K. Gupta, a doctor at a local hospital, said 13 of the injured were in serious condition. ″They have only 10 percent chances of survival,″ he said.
Thousands of young men wearing orange headbands, the color of the Hindu faith, broke through successive police cordons, entered the small mosque, pried bricks from the wall and chipped bits of plaster from its three domes. They planted an orange flag on each dome before police chased them away.
Many Hindus said they were helped by policemen guarding the mosque, which the fundamentalists say stands on the spot where Rama was born. Most of the 20,000 policemen on duty in Ayodhya are Hindus.
While the crowds rushed toward the mosque, Hindu holy men screamed obscenities from rooftops and pelted police with stones. At least four policemen were injured.
As news spread that the police barricades had been breached, hundreds of Hindus poured into the streets of Ayodhya in defiance of the 4-day-old curfew that had confined them to their homes. Many distributed candy and exploded firecrackers to shouts of ″Jai siya Rama 3/8″ - ″Victory to Rama 3/8″
Many policemen were seen entering the disputed shrine to pray.
The World Hindu Council said its success in penetrating police lines meant the temple project had begun.
″In my 19 years of service, I have never experienced such a sense of failure,″ a senior government official at the site said on condition of anonymity. ″It was a collapse of the administration.″
Later, paramilitary troops cleared the shrine of intruders and threatened to open fire if any further attempts were made to breach the barricades.
The government’s chief spokesman, Ramamohan Rao, said the mosque was not seriously damaged. He spoke in New Delhi, 300 miles northwest of Ayodhya.
In several towns hundreds of miles from Ayodhya, Hindus and Moslems fought street battles and police opened fire on rioting mobs. In those incidents, 25 were killed in street battles and the police firing, while one Hindu committed suicide in protest.
The army was called out in two towns in the western state of Gujarat. Police in New Delhi said the situation in the capital was tense and troops were alert for trouble.
Prime Minister Singh’s government lost its patchwork majority in Parliament last week after The Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party withdrew support over the government’s stand on the Ayodhya dispute.
On Tuesday, Singh offered to resign if his party felt ″that change of leadership will serve larger goals.″
″What is closest to my heart is that at this juncture the country be saved from communal flames,″ Singh said in a letter to his Janata Dal party president, Somappa Rayappa Bommai.
Singh is scheduled to face a vote of confidence Nov. 7. Bharatiya Janata has said it will oppose Singh’s continuing in office.
The Congress Party of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, the largest group in Parliament, has made a similar announcement. The Congress and Bharatiya Janata together hold 281 seats - a majority in the 522-member Parliament.
Bharatiya Janata says Singh’s policy on the dispute is aimed at garnering Moslem votes. The Congress accused him of faulty administration that brought the Hindu-Moslem dispute to a boil.
Moslems make up 12 percent of India’s 880 million people. Athough India is constitutionally a secular nation, Hindus comprise 82 percent of the population and have always held the prime minister’s post.
At least 900 people were killed in Hindu-Moslem violence last year after the Hindu group announced plans to replace the mosque with a temple.