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India Train Crash Kills 75 People; Sabotage Suspected

The crash is the worst in India since 2006
Indian security personnel use a stretcher to carry an injured passenger after a railway accident at Sardih. Photographer: Strdel/AFP/Getty Images

A goods train rammed into derailed coaches of a passenger express in eastern India, killing at least 75 people in the country’s worst rail disaster in eight years, as officials suspected sabotage by Maoist rebels.

The Gyaneshwari Express headed for the financial capital of Mumbai was struck by a cargo train in West Bengal’s Jhargram district, 155 kilometers (96 miles) southwest of Kolkata, at 1:30 a.m. local time, the state’s Home Secretary Samar Ghosh said in a phone interview. More than 146 injured passengers have been taken to local hospitals and there’s “still hope for survivors,” said Praveen Kumar, a local deputy inspector general of police.

“All I heard was the sound and then the screaming all night,” said a woman who survived the crash. Too traumatized to give her name, she sat near the site and said her husband was at the hospital looking for their eight-year old son. “I am sure he is in there along with all the dead people,” she said, clutching a railway ticket that showed three names -- Kavita Ray, 38, Sanjiv Ray, 42, and Sachin Ray, 8.

A child’s red shirt lay strewn across the controls of the engine and a red carry-on suitcase lay burst open, clothes spilling out and a box of chocolate cookies rotting in the heat. Elsewhere, 11 policemen guarded about 18 suitcases, waiting for survivors or family members to claim them.

‘Case of Sabotage’

“It is a case of sabotage,” Vivek Sahai, a member of the Railway Board, told reporters in New Delhi. The impact of the goods train caused most of the fatalities, he said. Police at the scene of the accident blamed Maoist guerrillas for the derailment, Railway Minister Mamata Banerjee told reporters.

The leftwing rebels operate in 11 of India’s 28 states and have killed more than 7,500 people since 1998. They have stepped up attacks in recent weeks, blowing up a passenger bus in mineral-rich Chhattisgarh state earlier this month, killing 31 police personnel and civilians. Initially inspired by Maoist ideology, the guerrillas have pressed a campaign of violence against the government, police and landowners in a class war that seeks to install communist rule.

“The Maoists think the best way to create, disorder, confusion, terror and discredit the government is to target civilians,” Kalim Bahadur, former professor of South Asian Studies at the New Delhi-based Jawaharlal Nehru University, said in a phone interview. “The objective is to create fear.”

Protest Week

Chief Minister of West Bengal, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, said in a televised address rebels had warned of a week of protests against an ongoing government offensive and his administration didn’t know they would “target innocent civilians.”

Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram said in a statement that part of the track appeared to have been removed. It isn’t clear if explosives were used, he said. The Maoist rebel-backed People’s Committee against Police Atrocities claimed responsibility for the attack, the Press Trust of India reported.

The crash is the worst in India since 2002, according to India Today magazine, when about 100 people died in neighboring Bihar state. As many as 65 people may have been killed today, PTI said. “Those are unofficial figures though the death toll may rise,” police official Kumar said.

“There is a cut on the railway track and several compartments were derailed. At least four to five of them are badly damaged,” West Bengal’s Home Secretary Ghosh said, adding many passengers are still trapped inside the compartments.

Television channel CNN-IBN showed police officers carrying the injured from the wreckage of the passenger train.

Biggest Challenge

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who has described the Maoists as the single biggest challenge to the country’s internal security, said he was grieved to learn about the crash, according to an e-mailed statement from his office.

India’s 63,000-kilometer railway network, Asia’s oldest, is frequently hit by fatal accidents. At least 10 people were killed after passenger trains collided in north India in dense fog in January. The rail network carries about 15 million people each day on 11,000 passenger trains, and 1.4 million tons of freight.

India banned the Maoists or Naxalites and more than a dozen “front organizations” in June last year. The radical movement takes its name from a 1967 peasant uprising in a village called Naxalbari in West Bengal.

Banerjee announced compensation of 500,000 rupees ($10,900) for the families of those killed in today’s collision, and 100,000 rupees for the injured.

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