Uneasy calm after 30 die in India riots over guru verdict

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PANCHKULA, India (AP) — Hundreds of security forces marched through a northern Indian town on Saturday to maintain calm after supporters of a quasi-religious sect leader protested his rape conviction with violence that left at least 30 people dead.

Authorities appealed to thousands of followers of the guru, who calls himself Saint Dr. Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Ji Insaan, to vacate his headquarters in Sirsa, a town in Haryana state, and go home.

"There are no instructions to security forces to enter the headquarters and forcibly clear it," said police spokesman Surjit Singh.

After a court declared the sect leader guilty of raping two of his followers 15 years ago, mobs on Friday set fire to government buildings, vandalized bus stations and government vehicles, and attacked police officers and TV journalists in the town of Panchkula, 250 kilometers (155 miles) north of Sirsa.

Police used tear gas and water cannons and fired bullets to control the mobs.

Authorities lifted curfew restrictions on Panchkula, the main trouble spot, on Saturday after the night passed relatively peacefully and the area was cleared of protesters, said police officer Pradeep Kumar.

However, Kuldeep Puri, a 45-year-old resident, said people had come out of their homes after three days but were still scared. "Offices are shut today, even private offices are shut. No buses are running on the streets," Puri said.

Tens of thousands of supporters of the sect leader had camped in Panchkula for days waiting for Friday's court verdict.

Haryana state police chief B. S. Sandhu said 28 people died, six of them due to bullet wounds, and more than 250 others were injured on Friday. More than 1,000 of the guru's supporters were detained on charges of arson and destruction of public property, he said.

Police said two other people were killed in the town of Sirsa, where the headquarters of the sect is located.

The guru, who had denied the charges of raping the two women at his ashram in 2002, was flown by helicopter to a jail in the nearby town of Rohtak because district officials feared they would be overrun by his supporters. His sentence will be announced Monday.

Indian Home Secretary Rajiv Mahrishi said Saturday that the situation was under control elsewhere in Haryana and the neighboring state of Punjab, as well as in the capital, New Delhi. 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 set on fire on Friday.

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

The sect claims to have about 50 million followers and campaigns for vegetarianism and against drug addiction. It has also taken up social causes such as organizing the weddings of poor couples. Such sects have huge followings in India. It's not unusual for their leaders to have small, heavily armed private militias protecting them.

Clashes in 2007 between Dera Sacha Sauda followers and members of the Sikh faith left at least three people dead in northern India.

In 2014, six people were killed when followers of another religious leader, the guru Rampal, fought pitched battles with police who were attempting to arrest him after he repeatedly failed to appear in court in connection with a murder trial.