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Militants Killed After Fierce Gun Battle at Disputed Indian Shrine  

In northern India, six unidentified militants died after raiding a disputed religious site sacred to both Hindus and Muslims. The attack has re-focused attention on a bitter sectarian dispute that has triggered deadly rioting in the past.

Indian officials say the militants rammed an explosives-laden vehicle into a security wall and stormed into the heavily-guarded religious site that houses a makeshift Hindu temple in the town of Ayodhya, in Uttar Pradesh state.

Authorities say all the militants were killed following a two-hour gun battle with the security forces that guard the complex.

Indian Home Minister Shivraj Patil. insists there was no damage to the site.

"Now it seems that the structure is intact, nothing has happened to the structure," he said. "They are trying to identify the persons who have been killed."

The religious complex in Ayodhya is at the center of a decades-old dispute between Hindus and Muslims, who both claim the site.

In 1992, right-wing Hindu mobs demolished a Muslim mosque at Ayodhya, sparking religious riots that claimed more than two thousand lives.

Hindu activists claim the mosque was built by Muslim rulers in the 16th century after they destroyed a temple dedicated to the supreme Hindu god, Rama.

The ownership dispute is now pending in Indian courts.

Following Tuesday's attack, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh appealed to all religious leaders in the country to maintain peace and harmony.

Government spokesman Sanjaya Baru says Mr. Singh has also vowed to deal firmly with terrorism.

"He reaffirmed India's resolve not to allow terrorist elements to succeed in their nefarious designs," he said.

But the incident has raised tempers among Hindu groups.

The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, along with other hard-line Hindu groups, have called for a nationwide strike on Wednesday to protest the attack.

The B.J.P., the main opposition party, has been at the forefront of a campaign to build a huge temple at the Ayodhya site, which Hindu groups refer to as "Ram Janmabhoomi," or birthplace of Lord Rama.

Ram Madhav, the leader of the National Volunteers Association, the country's main Hindu group, says, "We appeal to all the countrymen to register strong protest against this attack on Ram Janmabhoomi in a very peaceful manner and ensuring law and order in the country."

India's cabinet met in an emergency session on Tuesday and ordered security to be stepped-up nationwide.