At least 65 people were killed when an express train packed with sleeping passengers was derailed in a blast by suspected Maoist rebels in eastern India.
Thirteen carriages of the train, which was travelling from Kolkata, came off the tracks after an explosion in a rural area about 150 kilometres south of the city.
A cargo train then slammed into several of the coaches, badly crushing them.
“Rescuers working on the ground have told us 65 bodies have been found,” West Bengal police inspector general Surajit Kar Purakayastha said.
“We fear that many more bodies will be found.”
West Bengal state Home Secretary Samar Ghosh said more than 200 people were injured in the accident, which happened as the train travelled through a rebel stronghold.
Maoist rebels blamed
“We found some Maoist leaflets at the site so it appears to be the work of Maoists,” saod West Bengal police chief Bhupinder Singh.
“It seems there are still a large number of passengers trapped in the carriages – dead or alive, we are not sure,” Singh said.
Rescue workers with bolt cutters struggled to free anyone still alive inside.
One survivor, Vinayak Sadna, said he had been sleeping when his carriage lurched violently to one side and then flipped over, flinging passengers around the compartment.
“I ended up stuck between two seats with an iron bar crushing my hand,” Sadna said. “I was trapped for three hours before I was pulled out. My wife is still missing.”
Another distraught passenger, Ranjit Ganguly, who was travelling to Mumbai for a holiday with his family said he had been thrown from his carriage by the impact but his daughter and son were trapped inside.
Injured passengers airlifted
Paramedic teams treated the injured on the side of the track, while the most serious cases were evacuated by air force helicopters.
Railways Minister Mamata Bannerjee, who rushed to the site, confirmed that Maoists were believed to be responsible.
“The railways are a soft target. They are a lifeline… which the Maoists have attacked in the past and, it seems, even now,” she told reporters.
The incident occurred at around 1.30 am (2000 GMT Thursday) in the district of West Midnapore – a Maoist stronghold.
If Maoist involvement is confirmed, it will increase pressure on the Indian government, which is currently reviewing its anti-Maoist strategy after a series of deadly attacks.
Calls to deploy the military
Until now, the government has resisted growing calls to deploy the military against the rebels, preferring instead to use regular and paramilitary police.
But Home Minister P Chidambaram – who has borne the brunt of public criticism over the handling of the insurgency – recently acknowledged that changes were needed and said he would request wider powers.
The Maoist rebellion began in West Bengal state in 1967 in the name of defending the rights of tribal groups, and has since spread to 20 of India’s 28 states.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has labelled it the biggest threat to the country’s internal security.
India’s railway system – the main form of long-distance travel in India despite fierce competition from private airlines – runs 14,000 passenger and freight trains a day, carrying 18.5 million people.