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Gandhi Calls on Indians to Maintain Calm

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By AFTAB KHAN
The Associated Press
Saturday, September 9, 2006; 7:24 PM

MALEGAON, India -- Politicians called for calm on Saturday, a day after coordinated bombings killed dozens of Muslim worshippers and sparked renewed fears of violence across India's fragile religious divides.

Thousands of police and paramilitary soldiers have swept into the streets of the western city of Malegaon since the blasts which killed at least 31 people and injured more than 100 others on Friday as they left afternoon prayer services at a mosque.

"The most important thing at this juncture is to maintain communal harmony," Sonia Gandhi, head of India's ruling Congress party, told reporters after visiting the blast site. "These terrorist acts were aimed at creating a divide in the society."

There were four blasts Friday _ three set off inside a cemetery just outside the mosque and one on a nearby street, K.P. Raghuvanshi, head of the national police anti-terror squad, told Press Trust of India. At least two bombs were rigged to bicycles. Authorities had earlier reported only two explosions.

The blasts happened on a Muslim festival day when hundreds of people were crowded in and around the shrine.

Malegaon, about 180 miles northeast of Mumbai, has been scarred by incidents of violence between Hindus and Muslims since 1962. The most recent trouble was the 2001 Hindu-Muslim riots that killed 15 people.

The U.S. State Department said it was saddened by the bombings.

"There have been far too many terrorist attacks on Indian soil," the statement said. "The United States is fully supportive of the Indian government and the Indian people and considers itself a full partner with India in its fight against terrorism."

Although there were no signs of violence in Malegaon or elsewhere Saturday, tensions remained high.

But a curfew on Malegaon, famed for its cotton and muslin, was lifted, allowing dawn prayers at mosques across the city.

"We are keeping a watch in many places in Malegaon but curfew has been relaxed since the situation is peaceful," said area Superintendent of Police Rajvardhan, who goes by just one name as many people do in the region. "Heavy security will continue."

No one has claimed responsibility for Friday's attacks in this city of about 500,000 people, 75 percent of them Muslim. India's main opposition group, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, called for peace while accusing the ruling government of not being tough enough on terrorism.

The Malegaon blasts "are a textbook illustration of terrorist activism coupled with government apathy and incompetence," party leaders said in a statement.

On Saturday, families gathered to bury dead relatives and to wait at the city's hospitals for word on the injured.

Rasiq Pingari said his nephew, Iqbal Pingari, was killed in the explosion. The 26-year-old was in Malegaon to meet his wife's relatives.

"My nephew had just gone to pray. We were terrified when we heard about the blasts and when we saw him with his abdomen blown up in hospital it was the worst sight ever," he said.

Gandhi, with Federal Home Minister Shivraj Patil, handed out compensation checks to the families of the victims, Press Trust of India news agency reported.

A series of terrorist bombings have ripped across India in the past year. The most recent was the July train bombings in seven Mumbai commuter trains during peak evening traffic that killed more than 200 people. The bombings have been blamed on Pakistan-based Muslim militants.


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© 2006 The Associated Press

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