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Deadly clashes erupt after Indian guru's rape conviction

Money Sharma, AFP | Supporters of Indian religious leader Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh throw stones at security forces next to burning vehicles during clashes in Panchkula on August 25.

Security forces marched through a northern Indian town on Saturday to ensure calm after supporters of a quasi-religious sect leader protested his rape conviction with violence that left at least 32 people dead.

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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 special court declared the sect leader guilty of raping two of his followers 15 years ago, mobs on Friday set fire to government buildings, and attacked police and TV journalists, smashing the windshields of media vans and breaking broadcast equipment.

More than 15,000 paramilitary troops and police officers, some on horseback, were deployed in Panchkula. Police used tear gas and water canons and fired bullets in the air to control surging protesters.

Baldev Raj Mahajan, the Haryana state attorney, said Saturday that 28 people had died in Panchkula and another four in Sirsa. He said police arrested 524 people.

Over 100 were wounded, according to Dr. V.K. Bansal, chief medical officer at the state-run Panchkula Civil Hospital.

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

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.

Mandakini Gahlot reports from New Delhi

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, the capital New Delhi and the neighboring state of Punjab, where a curfew had been imposed earlier. Amid the clashes, railway stations in the towns of Malout and Balluana were set ablaze, and two coaches of an empty train parked in New Delhi's Anand Vihar station were set on fire.

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.

(FRANCE 24 with AP)

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