20 die as train derails after suspected Maoist sabotage

Jhargram (West Bengal)/New Delhi, May 28 (IANS) At least 20 people were killed and over 100 injured early Friday when the engine and 13 coaches of a Mumbai-bound passenger train derailed and were hit by a speeding goods train in West Bengal, officials said.

They said 20 bodies had been recovered from the derailed and badly damaged coaches of the Howrah-Kurla Gyaneshwari Super Deluxe Express.

As soon as the engine and 13 coaches fell on the adjoining track, rudely shaking the sleeping passengers, at least five derailed bogies were hit by the speeding goods train coming from the opposite direction.

Shrieks of injured passengers tore through the night as they feverishly tried to escape from the mangled coaches. Shocked train passengers stumbled out of the bogies and they frantically looked for their near ones.

In Delhi, a railway official didn’t rule out sabotage by Maoist guerrillas, but he said deaths were mainly caused by the goods train hitting five coaches of the passenger train.

‘We suspect it is a case of sabotage. The driver (of the passenger train) has reported to have heard a large sound. There was definite tinkering with the tracks,’ member Railway Board Vivek Sahai told reporters.

Sahai said 20 passengers were dead and 104 injured. He said a light engine and three trains had passed on the track earlier. ‘It is unfortunate that Gyaneshwar Express got hit.’

He said the railways had sounded a red alert in five states — Chhattisgarh, Bihar, Orissa, Jharkhand and West Bengal — in the wake of Maoists observing black week since the past midnight.

In Kolkata, Director General of Police Bhupinder Singh told IANS that the train ran off the track at 1.30 a.m. as a portion of the tracks as well as fish plates were found to have been removed near Jhargram, about 155 km from the West Bengal capital.

Initial reports indicated that a huge blast was to blame for the derailment, but it was not officially confirmed.

‘There could have been a blast. But the train derailed primarily because of the missing fishplates and rail tracks,’ Singh said.

Villagers and railway officials frantically tried to rescue passengers still trapped in the fallen bogies.

‘We heard a loud, screeching noise of the train braking and the coaches derailing,’ said a shocked passenger who survived the accident.

A man who rushed to help the injured said: ‘Initially, no security staff in the train helped. Only public came to the help of the passengers. We rushed to try and save people.’

No one has claimed responsibility for the sabotage, but it is suspected to be the handiwork of Maoist guerrillas active in the region.

Officials say they have recovered posters of Maoists and the Peoples Committee Against Police Atrocities (PCPA), a group of tribal agitators having close links with Leftist rebels in West Midnapore.

The Indian Air Force and other security agencies have launched a massive rescue operation for hundreds of people believed to be trapped in the damaged and tilted coaches of the train.

A Chetak and one Mi-17 helicopter has been sent to help in the rescue effort at the site, Wing Commander Mahesh Upasni, an IAF spokesperson told IANS.

‘CRPF (Central Reserve Police Force) personnel have rushed to the area,’ an official at the accident site said.

The injured passengers were taken to the nearest major town Kharagpur and elsewhere in West Midnapore district. Many of those wounded are believed to be in a serious condition.

Four second class sleepers – S3, S4, S5 and S6 – were badly mutilated, with rescuers fearing that most of the passengers trapped inside could be gravely injured.

The condition of the crew of the goods train was not immediately known.