LUCKNOW // Police efforts to evict thousands of people squatting in a makeshift protest camp in the heart of a north Indian city ended in deadly clashes as people opened fire from treetops and police retaliated, leaving at least 24 people dead.
More than 370 people have been arrested for their alleged part in the violence, during which gas cylinders being used by the protesters for cooking exploded and ignited a fire that killed 11 people, according to Daljit Chaudhary, a state police officer.
The victims included two police officers shot dead when the violence began late on Thursday in Mathura, an ancient Hindu temple city on the Yamuna River about 300 kilometres south-west of Lucknow in the state of Uttar Pradesh, Mr Chaudhary said. More than 100 people were injured in the melee. 23 police officers were hospitalised with injuries including bullet wounds.
The stand off had been building for nearly two years, during which thousands had occupied a 268 acre patch of government land while demanding that officials build public facilities and provide heavily discount petrol prices, now at about US$1 a litre. Over time, the protest camp grew with tents and cooking gear, with thousands of men, women and children using it as a makeshift home.
In April, the High Court in Allahabad ordered the occupiers to leave. When they refused, police obtained a court order for eviction and on Thursday sent a group of officers to the area to see if the squatters had left.
The protesters had gathered to resist the eviction, and about 100 of them violently attacked the officers, including some who opened fire from treetops while others hurled stones and thrashed the police with wooden sticks, according to Javed Ahmed, director general of state police.
“We knew they had firearms, but we didn’t expect them to fire at us the way they did,” Mr Ahmed said. “They appeared to be well trained in handling arms.”
Police then sent in about 500 reinforcements to clear the area and evict the squatters by Thursday night, he said. More than 170 rifles and 40 homemade revolvers were seized, and police on Friday were searching for more weapons and suspects.
“The culprits will not be spared at any cost. The police had gone there to vacate land following court orders,” said Uttar Pradesh’s chief minister Akhilesh Yadav.
The protesters had been calling themselves part of an independence force that followed the example of Subhas Chandra Bose, one of India’s independence leaders who went missing during a military operation in 1945.
* Associated Press