37 dead in stampede at Hindu festival in India

Updated 11 February 2013
0

37 dead in stampede at Hindu festival in India

ALLAHABAD, India: Anxious relatives searched for missing family members in northern India yesterday during one of the world's largest religious gatherings, unsure if their loved ones were caught in a stampede that killed 37 people or had simply gotten lost among the tens of millions of pilgrims.
People thronged to the main hospital in Allahabad to see if their relatives were among 37 dead and 39 people injured in Sunday evening's stampede at the city's train station. Tens of thousands of people were in the station waiting to board a train when railway officials announced a last-minute change in the platform, triggering the chaos.
An estimated 30 million Hindus took a dip Sunday at the Sangam — the confluence of the Ganges, the Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati rivers — as part of the 55-day Kumbh Mela, or Pitcher Festival. Sunday was one of the holiest days to bathe.
People missing at the Kumbh Mela is the stuff of legend in India and at least a dozen films have been made on the theme. On Sunday, like most other days, volunteers and officials used loudspeakers to give details of children and elderly people who were "found" on the river banks, having lost their families in the crowd.
It was unclear how many people were missing because of the stampede.
On Monday, state government officials and railway authorities told reporters that they had taken all precautions to prevent just such a tragedy.
Stampedes are common during religious festivities in India. During the Kumbh festival, platoons of policemen patrol the specially marked bathing areas to prevent crowding along the river banks in Allahabad.
For the past few weeks, and especially on festival days, authorities made constant announcements asking people to move in orderly lines to the bathing areas.
An official in the Uttar Pradesh state government in charge of the festival arrangements resigned Monday as the death toll mounted.
State minister Mohammed Azam Khan said he had "moral responsibility" for the stampede and submitted his resignation although the incident took place outside the Kumbh festival area.
Witnesses blamed police action for the stampede.
"We heard an announcement that our train is coming on platform No. 4 and when we started moving toward that platform through a footbridge, we were stopped. Then suddenly the police charged us with batons and the stampede started," passenger Shushanto Kumar Sen said.
"People started tumbling over one another and within no time I saw people, particularly women and children, being trampled over by others," Sen said.
Police denied they had used batons to control the crowd.
"It was simply a case of overcrowding. People were in a hurry to go back and there were not enough arrangements by the railway authorities," said Arun Kumar, a senior police officer.
Medical superintendent Dr. P. Padmakar of the main state-run hospital said 29 of the 37 people killed were women.
Railway Minister Pawan Kumar Bansal said an inquiry has been ordered into what led to the stampede. He said the railway station had huge crowds of people wishing to return home after prayers on the river banks.
"There were just too many people on the platforms," Bansal told reporters.
The crowds overran the station, and women, children and old people were pushed aside as people rushed toward the trains. Officials said train services were suspended after the stampede, leading to further crowding of the station.
Indian television stations showed large crowds pushing and jostling at the train station as policemen struggled to restore order.
"There was complete chaos. There was no doctor or ambulance for at least two hours after the accident," a witness told NDTV news channel.
Bansal said overcrowding at the station prevented medical teams from immediately reaching the injured.
Volunteers used stretchers to carry the injured to private vehicles which then ferried them to the hospital.
Bodies of the victims were being handed over to their families, Padmakar said. But 14 bodies were yet to be identified, he said.
The crowding at the station was just as bad Monday, with tens of thousands waiting to catch trains home.
"We just want to get out of here. But the trains are delayed," said Sunita Devi, a woman from neighboring Bihar state.
Officials said railway authorities Monday began running special trains to enable people to return home and help reduce the crowds that were waiting for transport to leave Allahabad.
The auspicious bathing days of the Kumbh Mela are decided by the alignment of stars, and the most dramatic feature of the festival is the Naga sadhus — ascetics with ash rubbed all over their bodies, wearing only marigold garlands — leaping joyfully into the icy holy waters.
According to Hindu mythology, the Kumbh Mela celebrates the victory of gods over demons in a furious battle over nectar that would give them immortality. As one of the gods fled with a pitcher of the nectar across the skies, it spilled on four Indian towns: Allahabad, Nasik, Ujjain and Haridwar.
The Kumbh Mela is held four times every 12 years in those towns. Hindus believe that sins accumulated in past and current lives require them to continue the cycle of death and rebirth until they are cleansed. If they bathe at the Ganges on the most auspicious day of the festival, believers say they can rid themselves of their sins.
____
Associated Press writer Biswajeet Banerjee contributed to this report.


UN Security Council to visit Myanmar and Bangladesh as it eyes action on Rohingya crisis

Updated 54 min 30 sec ago
0

UN Security Council to visit Myanmar and Bangladesh as it eyes action on Rohingya crisis

UNITED NATIONS: The UN Security Council will pay a visit to Bangladesh and Myanmar beginning Saturday as it weighs next steps to address one of the world’s worst refugee crises, stemming from the forced exodus of Muslim Rohingya.
Myanmar has come under international scrutiny since a military campaign launched in August drove more than 700,000 Rohingya from their homes in northern Rakhine state and into crowded camps in Bangladesh.
The council is urging Myanmar to allow their safe return and take steps to end decades of discrimination that the Muslim minority has suffered in Buddhist-majority Myanmar.
The visit kicks off in the camps of Cox’s Bazaar in Bangladesh where ambassadors will meet refugees, whose harrowing accounts of killings, rape and the torching of villages at the hands of Myanmar’s military and militias have been documented in UN human rights reports.
Led by Kuwait, Britain and Peru, the four-day visit is expected to include a trip by helicopter to Rakhine to allow ambassadors to tour villages affected by the violence, including Pan Taw Pyin and Shwe Zar.
The council will hold talks with Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been criticized for failing to speak out in defense of the Rohingya, and with Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.
Kuwait’s Ambassador Mansour Al-Otaibi said the visit was not about “naming and shaming” Myanmar, but that “the message will be very clear for them: the international community is following the situation and has great interest in resolving it.”
“We are coming to see how can we help, how can we push things forward,” he said, stressing that the current situation was “not acceptable.”
“700,000 people have fled their country and they cannot go back. It’s a humanitarian disaster.”
After months of deliberations, Myanmar finally agreed this month to allow the council to visit as the government rejected accusations from the United Nations and Western countries that the attacks against the Rohingya were ethnic cleansing.
Myanmar has said the military operation in Rakhine is aimed at rooting out extremists.
British Ambassador Karen Pierce said it was “incredibly important” for the council to see the situation on the ground as it considers “what needs to be done next to help Myanmar develop as a modern, political and economic entity.”
The United States and its European partners in the council have faced strong opposition to action on the Rohingya crisis from China, a supporter of Myanmar’s former ruling junta.
The council adopted a statement in November that called on Myanmar to rein in its military, but there has been no resolution, a stronger measure that China would likely block as one of the veto-wielding permanent members.
“This trip represents an opportunity for the council to press the reset button,” said Akshaya Kumar, UN deputy director for Human Rights Watch.
“They have taken almost no action,” she said.
“So if this trip is what is needed to spur them to actually respond to the gravity of an ethnic cleansing on their watch, then we’ll be waiting for a resolution when they return.”
The president of the International Red Cross, which is providing aid to those affected by the violence in Rakhine, said the Myanmar government is rebuilding villages and taking steps to allow the Rohingya to return.
“But what we see is that people don’t yet trust that this will give them safety and security,” said Peter Maurer.
“We are at the beginning of the such a confidence-building process. It’s a very long way to go,” Maurer told reporters.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Thursday announced the appointment of Christine Schraner Burgener, Switzerland’s ambassador to Germany, as his new special envoy to Myanmar, following a months-long search for an emissary.