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India braces for vote clashes

Khatunbibi, a Muslim, cries after a mob burned her home in the Shahpur area of Ahmadabad  

Staff and wires

NEW DELHI, India -- Authorities in India are bracing for fresh religious clashes in the western state of Gujarat as lawmakers prepare to vote on censuring the government for its handling of the worst violence in a decade.

The decision to go ahead with the vote on Tuesday ended a six-day impasse that has crippled the lower house of parliament.

India's coalition government has been slammed for failing to contain the deadly clashes, which has killed more than 850 people since late February.

Police are patrolling the streets of Gujarat's main city Ahmedabad, which has borne the brunt of the Hindu-Muslim violence.

The vote cannot topple the fragile 20-party coalition but could embarrass Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and his Hindu nationalist party if it were to lose the vote.

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The decision of deputy speaker P.M. Sayeed to allow the vote over the deadly riots came after a renewed upsurge in violence in Gujarat.

Renewed clashes

Police said on Tuesday two men had died of injuries suffered in Hindu-Muslim clashes, taking the death toll since Saturday to 27.

"It is an explosive situation. No one can predict what will happen where and when," a senior police official told Reuters news agency in Ahmedabad.

Violence continued in the city late on Monday night as mobs of Hindus and Muslims hurled acid and crude bombs at each other.

The fighting first started after a Muslim mob torched a train carrying Hindu activists on February 27, burning 59 to death and triggering brutal reprisals against Muslims.

Since then, most of the dead have been Muslims, killed by rioting Hindus who burned them alive and destroyed their homes and businesses.

Deserted streets

On Tuesday, the usually crowded streets of Ahmedabad's old quarter, which has a high population of Muslims, were deserted.

Only a few women venturing out to buy milk or to collect water for household use could be spotted.

Shops were shuttered and traffic remained thin with an indefinite curfew in force in most parts of the old walled city.

Authorities said the fresh outbreak of violence had prompted hundreds of scared Muslims to already crowded refugee camps where some 110,000 people, mostly Muslims, have been sheltered since early March.

Abdul Hamid Mansoori, coordinator of a relief camp, said some 500 people had arrived at his camp in the last two days, taking the total number of refugees there to 3,000.

'Blind eye'

The opposition has accused the state government of condoning the Hindu violence and allowing police to target Muslims.

Opposition parties and allies of Vajpayee's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have demanded Gujarat's chief minister Narendra Modi be fired for allegedly turning a blind eye to the killings.

The issue deadlocked parliament last week as Vajpayee stood by Modi, also a member of BJP, and refused to sack him.

The Telugu Desam Party (TDP), the BJP's largest parliamentary ally and which has also called for Modi to quit, said it would decide soon on how it would vote in the censure motion.


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