Stampede during Hindu festival kills dozens in India



THIRUVANANTHAPURAM // At least 64 people died and scores were injured Friday in a stampede at a religious festival in southern India triggered by a vehicle crashing into a crowd, officials said.

The tragedy happened on Friday at around 20:00 local time (1630 GMT) in a remote mountainous area during a pilgrimage to the Hindu shrine of Sabarimala that draws three to four million people each year, according to organisers.

State Home Minister Kodiuyeri Balakrishnan told AFP that sixty-four bodies had been retrieved from the hilly and densely forested area where pilgrims were crammed onto narrow roads at the end of the winter festival season.

"Relief operations are going on," he said amid suggestions from other officials that the death toll could rise.

Special police commissioner Rajendra Nair said that 100 pilgrims might have died in the accident, while state Education Minister M.A. Baby said the final death toll could climb as high as 90.

The Press Trust of India (PTI) reported that the rescue effort was being hampered by the remote location, thick forest covering and narrow roads which made the region difficult for the emergency services to access.

Stampedes at public events in India are common as large numbers of people crowd into congested areas. Panic can spread quickly and, with surging crowds and few safety regulations in place, the result is often lethal.

Details were still emerging early Saturday of the cause of the stampede, but initial reports said either a bus or a jeep crashed into the tightly-packed crowd.

"It was bus accident first and after the accident people panicked," a spokesman for the Sabarimala Trust, Rahul Eashwar, told the NDTV news channel, while other reports suggested a jeep had spun out of control.

Under the customs of the pilgrimage, hundreds of thousands of men and women set off on foot in groups for the Sabarimala temple, each carrying a cloth bundle containing traditional offerings.

But many of the elderly, or those short of time, opt to cram into overloaded buses and jeeps to travel as close as possible to the temple which is believed to be where the god Ayyappa meditated.

The shrine is packed with devotees throughout the pilgrimage season from November to January.

The governor of Kerala R S Gavai expressed his sadness at the loss of life, "I am deeply shocked and saddened at the tragic accident," he said according to PTI.

"I share my profound grief of the bereaved familes and pray for the speedy recovery of those injured."

In March last year, police in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh blamed lax safety for the deaths of 63 people -- all of them women and children -- in a stampede outside another Hindu temple.

At least another 10 people died in a stampede at a temple in the state of Bihar in October.

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