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'Six dead' amid ashram stand-off

At least six people have died in a stand-off between police and an Indian religious leader who is believed to be holed up inside his sprawling ashram along with thousands of devotees - some of whom are said to be armed.

The guru, 63-year-old Sant Rampal, is wanted for questioning in a 2006 murder case, but has repeatedly ignored orders to appear in court.

Riot police tried to storm the ashram compound in Haryana state on Tuesday, but Rampal's followers, some of them using guns, rocks and batons, fought them off, authorities said.

About 200 people were injured, including security forces personnel.

On Wednesday, the guru's followers handed over to police the bodies of four women who apparently died inside the 12-acre complex. Earlier in the day, a woman and an 18-month-old child died in a hospital after leaving the ashram.

The circumstances of the deaths are not yet clear, and post-mortem examinations are taking place.

Gurus and Hindu holy men are immensely popular in India, with millions of followers. People often consult gurus before taking important personal decisions. But the enormous power wielded by these self-styled holy men has also led to several scandals in which they are accused of exploiting devotees.

Shriniwas Vashisht, director-general of police in Haryana, said many of the thousands of people holed up with Rampal are being held against their will or are being used as human shields to prevent police action.

"They know that we will not allow innocent women and children to be caught in the crossfire and they are taking advantage of that," Mr Vashisht said.

Authorities have tried to flush out Rampal by cutting off electricity and water to the compound. Thousands of people began streaming out of the ashram on Wednesday, and many said armed followers of the guru had prevented them from leaving earlier.

"They closed and locked the gates inside the compound and would not let us out," said Birender Satya, who had travelled from central India with his mother to listen to Rampal's preaching.

It was not immediately clear whether people were still being prevented from leaving. Police estimated that some 5,000 people could still be inside the ashram.

"Our operations will end only when we have arrested Rampal. We have suspended the operations to let people come out voluntarily," Mr Vashisht said.

Rampal and 38 others have been charged with murder and other offences after a violent clash between his supporters and another group killed one person in July 2006. He was freed on bail, which was cancelled after his followers entered a courtroom and threatened lawyers in July.

Since 2010, Rampal, a former engineer, has ignored 43 court summonses, seeking exemptions each time. The court set a final deadline for him to appear in court on Monday, which he also ignored.

Rampal's supporters say he is too ill to make the 155-mile journey from his ashram in Haryana's Hisar district to the court in the state capital, Chandigarh.

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