An express train packed with sleeping passengers derailed in India Friday and slammed into a goods train, killing at least 30 people in an apparent attack by Maoist rebels, officials said.
More fatalities were feared in the mangled wreckage after 13 carriages of the Mumbai-bound express train careened off the tracks in the state of West Bengal and collided with the oncoming freight train.
Initial reports indicated the derailment may have been triggered by an act of sabotage, with officials pointing the finger at Maoist rebels who are active in the region of eastern India.
|In this image taken from TV, Indian rescue workers and volunteers stand beside the wreckage of train carriages after an accident in the district of West Midnapore, some 135 kilometres (85 miles) west of the state capital Kolkata, on May 28|
The official death toll stood at 15, but a doctor treating the injured at the site told the NDTV television network that at least 30 people had been killed.
West Bengal Relief Minister Mortaja Hussain said hundreds of people had yet to be rescued from the train, which was heading to India's financial capital Mumbai from the West Bengal state capital Kolkata.
Railways Minister Mamata Bannerjee, who rushed to the site, said she had originally been told that the derailment had been caused by an explosion on the tracks.
However, several railway officials said it seemed a section of rail had been removed.
"The fear is that this was a Maoist attack," Bannerjee told reporters.
"The railways are a soft target. They are a lifeline ... which the Maoists have attacked in the past and, it seems, even now," she added.
The incident occurred at around 1:30 am (2000 GMT Thursday) in the district of West Midnapore -- a Maoist stronghold some 135 kilometres (85 miles) west of Kolkata.
Maoist fighters waging a bloody rebellion have been responsible for several train derailments in eastern India in recent months.
The government is reviewing its anti-Maoist strategy after a series of deadly attacks, including the bombing of a bus in the central state of Chhattisgarh earlier this month that killed 24 civilians and 11 police.
Until now, the government has resisted calls to deploy the military against the rebels, preferring instead to use regular and paramilitary police as the front-line force.
But Home Minister P. Chidambaram -- who has borne the brunt of public criticism over the handling of the insurgency -- recently acknowledged that changes were needed and said he would request wider powers.
The insurgency began in West Bengal state in 1967 in the name of defending the rights of tribal groups, and has since spread to 20 of India's 28 states.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has labelled the Maoists the biggest internal security threat to India.
Friday's incident appeared to be the worst loss of life on India's enormous rail network since 22 people were killed last October, when a Delhi-bound express ploughed into the back of another passenger train near the Taj Mahal town of Agra.
The railway system -- the main form of long-distance travel in India despite fierce competition from private airlines -- runs 14,000 passenger and freight trains a day, carrying 18.5 million people.
Past accidents have left hundreds dead.
In 2002, 100 were killed and 150 hurt when a carriage plunged into a river in the northeastern state of Bihar, while in 1995 more than 300 died in a collision near Ferozabad, near Agra.