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28 dead as mob violence breaks out after sect leader convicted of rape

Mobs have rampaged across an Indian town, leaving 28 people dead and buildings in flames, after a court declared a quasi-religious sect leader guilty of raping two of his followers, according to officials.

Security forces used water cannons in an attempt to disperse the crowd as more than 15,000 paramilitary troops and police officers were deployed in the town of Panchkula, near Chandigarh.

The violence has left at least 28 dead, including some with bullet wounds, and more than 250 injured, according to VK Bansal, chief medical officer at the state-run Panchkula Civil Hospital.

A special court had announced a guilty verdict after hearing closing arguments in the 15-year-old case against the guru, who calls himself Saint Dr Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Ji Insaan.

Ram Rahim Singh - who had denied raping the two women at his ashram in 2002 - was taken into custody and is to be held in a jail in the nearby town of Rohtak in Haryana state until his sentencing hearing on Monday, prosecutors said.

Tens of thousands of his followers had camped out overnight in Panchkula awaiting the verdict, and m obs set fire to government buildings and attacked police and TV journalists, smashing media vans and breaking broadcast equipment.

Police initially used tear gas and water cannons and then fired bullets in the air in an attempt to control the surging mobs as they vandalised bus stations and government vehicles.

Officers said more than 1,000 of the guru's supporters had been detained in Panchkula on charges of arson and destruction of public property.

Dilawar Insan, a spokesman for the Dera Sacha Sauda sect, appealed for calm, saying: " I just want to request everyone to maintain peace at the moment. We will explore what legal options are available to us."

Violence also broke out in several places across the neighbouring states of Haryana and Punjab, police said. Railway stations in the towns of Malout and Balluana were ablaze, and two coaches of an empty train parked in New Delhi's Anand Vihar station were also set on fire.

A curfew was imposed in at least four districts of Punjab, said Amrinder Singh, the state chief minister.

Angry mobs attacked police in the town of Sirsa, where the guru's ashram is located, according to local police.

The sect claims to have 50 million followers and campaigns for vegetarianism and against drug addiction. It has also taken up social causes such as organising the weddings of poor couples.

Such sects have huge followings in India, and it is not unusual for leaders to have small, heavily armed private militias protecting them. When the guru left his ashram in Sirsa for the hearing, he was accompanied by a 100-vehicle convoy.

Police had erected heavy metal barricades topped with barbed wire along main roads in Panchkula, a quiet residential suburb of Chandigarh, which is the common capital of Haryana and Punjab states.

Authorities ordered internet and mobile phone services shut down across Haryana and Punjab as a security precaution.

Train services were cancelled through the area, leading to delays across northern India, and schools and colleges were closed.

In a televised appeal on Thursday, Ram Rahim Singh had asked his supporters not to resort to violence, but some said they would not tolerate a verdict that went against their leader.

AP

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