Police in northern India say at least 28 people have been killed and 250 more wounded in riots that broke out after a court convicted a controversial guru of raping two of his followers.
Tens of thousands of supporters of the guru, who calls himself Saint Dr. Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Ji Insan, had gathered near the barricaded courthouse in the city of Panchkula.
The court handed down a guilty verdict Friday, triggering rioting by supporters of the guru.
Violent mobs set fire to government buildings and attacked journalists and police officers. Police used tear gas and water cannons to disperse the crowds and eventually resorted to firing warning shots in the air in an attempt to control the rioters.
“The situation is tense. There has been arson and burning,” Rajiv Mehrishi, the federal home secretary, said late Friday.
B.S. Sandhu, a top state of Haryana police official, said more than 1,000 of the guru’s supporters were detained by police on rioting charges.
A spokesman for the guru's sect, Dera Sacha Sauda, urged his supporters to remain calm.
“I just want to request everyone to maintain peace at the moment,” said Dilawar Insan. “We will explore what legal options are available to us.”
Indian investigators alleged that Singh, dubbed the "guru in bling,” molested two of his female worshipers – a charge that he and his supporters deny.
Six thousand police officers were deployed in the city of Panchkula alone as authorities feared that a guilty verdict could result in violence.
Many popular ascetics claiming to have mystical powers in India, including Singh, have been linked with scandals and controversy.
In 2015, Singh, leader of the Dera Sacha Sauda sect, was accused of encouraging 400 followers to undergo castration at his ashram so they could get closer to God.
Singh also stood trial for conspiracy to murder a journalist in 2002.
But his supporters have stood firm, referring to him as "the ultimate humanitarian" on the group's website.