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Indian Investigation Concludes Accidental Fire Led to Deadly 2002 Riots in Gujarat

An Indian government inquiry has concluded that a train fire that sparked deadly rioting in the western state of Gujarat three years ago was an accident, and was not purposely started by a Muslim mob as originally alleged.

Nearly three years ago, deadly sectarian riots engulfed the western Gujarat state after 59 Hindu pilgrims were burnt to death in a train fire as they passed through the town of Godhra.

Most reports said two cars carrying the Hindu pilgrims were set on fire by a Muslim mob that threw gasoline bombs at the train. The incident triggered deadly Hindu-Muslim riots that killed about one-thousand people, mostly Muslims.

The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, which was in power at the time of the rioting, was ousted last year by a coalition headed by the Congress Party. The new government ordered an investigation, which has now concluded that the fire began inside the train, and was started by accident.

A retired judge who headed the investigation, U.C. Banerjee, says the possibility of an inflammable liquid having been thrown at the train has been completely ruled out.

"It cannot but be concluded that the fire originated in the coach itself, without any external input," he said.

Justice Banerjee says that according to eyewitness accounts, people had been cooking in the coach when it caught fire.

The state and federal governments, both led at the time by strong Hindu nationalists, originally said that the Hindu pilgrims were attacked by a mob of Muslims after insults were exchanged at the station.

The Bharatiya Janata Party, which is now in opposition, has called the new report "politically motivated." BJP leaders say it has been released just weeks before elections take place in three Indian states, and is a ploy to woo Muslim voters.

Praveen Tagodia heads the World Hindu Council, a Hindu group closely aligned to the BJP.

Mr. Tagodia says the report is wrong. He says it is well-established that a small number of Muslims had entered the train and thrown the petrol bombs from inside.

The Gujarat rioting was the worst in the last decade in predominately-Hindu India, where Muslims make up about 12 percent of the population. Gujarat's Hindu nationalist state government was been accused by several human rights groups of turning a blind eye at the time the rioting took place.