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Rioting Erupts as Troops Move to Restore Order in Gujarat - 2002-03-02

In the Indian state of Gujarat, troops have restored a measure of order to cities which witnessed some of the worst sectarian violence in recent days - but rioting has erupted in outlying areas. The Indian Prime Minister has gone on national television to appeal for restraint as authorities counted more than 300 dead in the violence that has gripped the state.

There was relative calm on Saturday in Ahmedabad - the city that bore the brunt of the rioting in the last two days. But reports of massacres, looting, and arson poured in from towns and villages in the interior of the state where troops have not been deployed.

In a remote village in the Mehsana district, 27 Muslims were burned to death. On the outskirts of Vadodra, a Hindu mob torched a Muslim bakery killing several people. In Bhavnagar, gangs burned and looted shops.

More troops are being deployed in the state - and officials are hoping their presence will help to restore order.

In an address on national television, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee urged Hindus and Muslims to maintain peace. He said the burning alive of people, including women and children in Gujarat was a "blot on the nation", and would hurt India's prestige in the world.

Curfew and shoot-on-sight orders remain in effect through most of the state - but it was lifted for some time to allow residents to buy food and essential goods.

In Ahmedabad city, bulldozers have begun removing the wreckage of two days of rioting. Deputy Police Commissioner Pramod Kumar says the situation is volatile, but tensions are easing in the city.

"It's less, it's lessening, It's less than what it was yesterday," he said. " Since last night it is more or less incident-free day, except for one or two incidents."

Authorities say they will establish peace committees to help restore trust between Hindus and Muslims.

The rioting in Gujarat began when Muslims attacked a train and burned to death 58 Hindu activists returning from the small town of Ayodhya situated hundreds of miles away.

Thousands of Hindu nationalists from the World Hindu Council have gathered and have vowed to begin construction of a temple on the ruins of a mosque starting March 15.

The plan has angered Muslims and is believed to have fanned the rioting in Gujarat.

The government is now under intense pressure to prevent the Hindu nationalist group from carrying out its temple construction program because there are fears it could spark another round of sectarian violence.

The government has sent in hundreds of troops into Ayodhya and has begun diverting rail traffic away from the town to prevent more Hindu activisits joining the thousands who have already gathered there.