This story was originally published in The Washington Post print edition on March 3, 2002.

Sardarpura, India — Carrying wooden sticks and plastic jugs of kerosene, the mob of 500 Hindus made no secret of its intentions as it swarmed into this tiny farming town late Friday night. “Kill the Muslims,” they chanted. “Kill the Muslims.”

Trying to flee but surrounded on all sides by the Hindu crowd, most of the town’s Muslims holed up in the one place they believed was safe: a one-room house with thick concrete walls and metal-barred windows at the end of their neighbourhood.

But the throng soon followed them there and encircled the house. “Get rid of the Muslims,” some of the Hindus said, according to a Hindu man who witnessed the attack.

Panicked and crying, those inside the house begged for their lives. “We said, ‘Please forgive us. Please let us go,’” said Ruksanabano Ibrahim, 20, who was packed inside with a dozen family members. “We kept saying, ‘We are not your enemies. What have we done to you?’ “

Then, just as it did moments earlier with shops, cars and other homes in the neighborhood, the mob doused cloth-wrapped sticks with kerosene, ignited them and hurled them through the windows. The terrorized occupants, who were locked inside the house, tried in vain to smother the flames with wool shawls and douse them with bottles of drinking water.

When police officers arrived half an hour later and broke open the door, 29 landless labourers and their children had been burned to death. Most of the 20 others in the house were seriously burned.

The survivors have fled. No one expects them to dare return.

The gruesome attack was the latest in a wave of retaliatory killings by Hindus that have plunged India’s western Gujarat state into anarchy over the past three days, after a train carrying Hindu pilgrims, who had been rallying to build a temple at the site of a destroyed mosque, was firebombed by Muslims on Wednesday, killing 58 people. The subsequent clashes, which have claimed more than 450 lives, are the most severe religious strife in India in almost a decade.

Although police imposed a curfew in 37 towns and army troops sent to the state received orders to shoot rioters on sight, the unrest continued Saturday.

In Ahmedabad, which was the scene of brutal slayings and arson attacks on Thursday and Friday, Hindu gangs set fire to shops in several Muslim neighborhoods.

In the town of Vadodra, police said seven Muslims working in a bakery were burned alive by a Hindu mob.

Police said more than 120 people were killed Friday in Ahmedabad, Sardarpura and another village in easternGujarat.

Despite fears among some government officials that the fighting would spread to other cities, most of the violence thus far has been confined to Gujarat, which has a long history of Hindu-Muslim clashes.

Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee delivered a nationally televised address calling for peace. He said the attacks were “a blot on the country’s face.”

About 12 per cent of India’s one billion people are Muslims, while 82 per cent are Hindu. Although India is an officially secular nation, religious tension between Hindus and Muslims has existed for centuries. In 1947, when India gained its independence and was partitioned to create the Muslim nation of Pakistan, hundreds of thousands of people were killed as they tried to move between the countries. And in 1993, in the last major round of religious fighting, more than 800 people died in sectarian riots in Bombay.

While the police and military have increased their presence in large cities, the revenge attacks appear to be spreading to rural areas like Sardarpura, where security forces are stretched thin. Local police officials expressed concern at their ability to stem a wave of vigilante attacks across the state’s farming villages, many of which have small Muslim enclaves but lack full-time police protection.

In Sardarpura, which has the largest Muslim population in a 50-kilometre radius, the violence began on Friday afternoon, when several hundred irate Hindus arrived from Ghantral, a nearby village. Claiming that two Ghantral residents were killed aboard the train on Wednesday, the mob used pickaxes to demolish a light blue mosque on the road into Sardarpura, located about 60 kilometres north of Ahmedabad.

Forced to disperse from the mosque by police, the Hindus later regrouped and returned to the village around 9 p.m., police officials said.

Once again, the police pushed them back by firing tear gas canisters, the officials said. But then the 14-man police contingent left the town to patrol neighbouring villages. As soon as they departed, the mob returned -- with devastating consequences.

“We couldn’t just stay here,” said sub-inspector B.K. Purohit. “We had to patrol other areas.”

After an emergency call from the town, the officers headed back, but said they were stopped a few kilometres away by roadblocks.

Muslims who used to live here as well as those in other parts of the state contend security forces have been slow to respond. In some cases, they said, police and soldiers simply stood by as women and children were killed with sticks and swords.

“The police were nowhere to be seen when we were attacked,” said Fatima Bibi, 48, who hid with nine relatives in the home of a Hindu family.

“They should have been protecting us.”

As the mob closed in on the Muslim neighbourhood, the residents attempted to defend themselves by throwing stones and brandishing knives, said Sanju, a Hindu mechanic who witnessed the confrontation.

But the Muslims quickly found themselves outnumbered and were forced to retreat, he said.

Although some Muslims managed either to run away from the village or to hide in the homes of Hindu families, most made their way down a rutted dirt path, past burning cars and huts, to the concrete house.

“We thought it would be the safest place because the walls are so thick,” Ruksanabano Ibrahim said from her hospital bed Saturday in a nearby city.

By the time Ibrahim arrived with her relatives, the small house already was stuffed with people. So when the mob began throwing flaming sticks through the open windows, setting the bed and other furniture alight, there was no place to retreat.

“Those who could not move into the corners, they were sucked into the flames,” she said. As new pieces of blazing material were tossed into the house and flames danced up the walls, Ibrahim and a few others kept moving around the room, tripping on the bodies of people who had collapsed.

“We were filled with fear,” she said. “We were crying, begging them to let us go.”