- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 9, 2002

AHMEDABAD, India (AP) As the death toll from India's worst Hindu-Muslim violence in a decade reached 678, the nation's main opposition leader, Sonia Gandhi, visited the areas worst hit by the riots.

The move was seen as a major effort by India's conservative leaders to heal the wounds opened up by the bitter sectarian violence in the past few days.

Mrs. Gandhi, the Congress Party president, and widow of martyred Indian leader Rajiv Gandhi, led an all-party delegation to Godhra in the western Indian state of Gujarat, where a mob attack last week on a train carrying Hindu activists killed 58 persons.

The attack triggered communal rioting across the state that left at least 620 more persons dead.

Accompanied by Parliamentary Affairs Minister Pramod Mahajan and about 20 other MPs, she also went to Ahmedabad city, which was one of the worst affected by the violence, as well as to relief camps.

State authorities say that more than 65,000 people are living in 24 camps across Gujarat after having escaped the violence.

More than 40,000 in Ahmedabad alone are homeless through vandalism and arson or are too scared to return to their houses.

At one of the camps housing Muslims, Mrs. Gandhi was met by a 6,000-strong crowd, many of whom wanted to tell her their tragic stories.

Sobbing women who had waited for hours lined up before her to describe how the violence had affected their families.

The legislators' visit came as opposition politicians warned of continued tensions in Gujarat and accused the government of not doing enough to bring the rioters to justice.

Opposition member Raghu Vansh Yadav, who was part of Mrs. Gandhi's delegation, said: "The situation is very tense in Godhra even now. The people who have committed the massacre are still at large."

Muslim League President G.M. Banatwala said the state government had not protected the Muslim minority.

"I am absolutely not satisfied. We demand the dismissal of the home minister and removal of the [Gujarat] Chief Minister Narendra Modi."

Opposition parties have called for the resignations of Indian Home Minister Lal Krishna Advani and Mr. Modi for failing to prevent the violence that erupted after the Feb. 27 train massacre.

"If you cannot safeguard the lives of the people, I'm sorry to say, Mr. Home Minister, you have no moral authority to stay in office," senior Congress Party leader Pranab Mukherjee said Thursday during a debate in the upper house of Parliament in New Delhi.

Yesterday, a row over the handling of the riots forced a brief adjournment of Parliament.

Police in Gujarat said the death toll was likely to increase because bodies were still being recovered from different areas of the state.

They said they had begun a massive operation to arrest those responsible for the violence, many of whom were caught on camera.


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