At least 65 dead after train derailment in West Bengal, India

Friday, May 28, 2010

At least 65 people were killed and over 200 injured when a train derailed in West Bengal, India. Suspected Maoist rebels triggered the attack which occurred in the Howrah-Kurla Lokmanya Tilak Gyaneshwari Super Deluxe Express. The train, which runs from Kolkata to Mumbai, had thirteen coaches derailed, five of which were subsequently struck by a freight train coming in the opposite direction.

The train derailed near the city of Sardiha, about 90 miles (150 km) southwest of the state capital of Kolkata. The region is a Maoist stronghold where multiple attacks have occurred in the recent past. The exact cause of the disaster was unclear, with some officials claiming an explosion had led to the attack, while some unaffected passengers stating they heard no blast.

Police officials, including Bhupinder Singh, the head of police of the state, said the metallic parts which held parts of the rail track together were missing and labeled this as an act of sabotage. Singh blamed the Maoists for the attack stating policemen had found Maoist leaflets at the scene.

However, the driver said he had heard an explosion in the attack which derailed as many as ten passenger coaches. The country's railways minister Mamata Bannerjee said the combined effect of sabotage to the tracks and a bomb blast led to the incident. According to her, there was "definitely sabotage" and the bomb blast had led to the derailment. "From whatever I have been told the apprehension is the Maoists were involved," she added. Police officials mentioned they were investigating whether the removal of the "fish plates" was the primary cause of the attack.

"The driver heard a loud noise which indicates there could be a blast. A detail investigation will reveal more, but definitely there was lot of tinkering done to the tracks," a senior railway official, Vivek Sahay, said.

The incident occurred at around 1:30 a.m. local time, and police forces and local medics took an hour to rech the site. Lack of roads and the fear of an ambush by Maoists slowed rescue operations. Passengers complained of the slow operations; some of them claimed luggage and valuables were stolen in the confusion.

E. Mitra, a doctor at the nearby Kharagpur Railway Hospital, noted 30 bodies had been taken to the hospital. But "a lot of dead bodies are strewn under the derailed carriages," he added. Home Secretary of the state, Samar Ghosh, said 65 bodies had been found till then.

Air Force helicopters came to the scene at dawn as local television footage showed onlookers standing on the top of the affected carriages, as soldiers cut holes in the roofs with a gas-powered circular saw.

"People are crying. Rescuers are struggling to save the survivors and get the bodies out," Naresh Jana, a witness, said. "I can see body parts hanging out of the compartments and under the wheels. I can hear people, women, crying for help from inside the affected coaches."

"There was a massive jerk, and we thought the Maoists had stopped the train to hijack it," another unidentified witness told local media. "But thank God it was an accident ... at least many people are saved. This area is very dangerous, very dangerous."

The railways minister of India announced a compensation of $11,000 and a job in her ministry for the families of the dead and $2,200 for those wounded.

The Maoists guerillas who are known as "Naxalites" in India are powerful force in Chhattisgarh, Orissa, West Bengal, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Jharkhand, which are the relatively poorer states of India. In the past few years, poor or landless peasants and tribesman have rendered their support towards the insurgents, due to the wealth gap and as a result of the former losing their land to government-aided mining companies.