, SARDIHA, May 29 – Indian rescue workers Saturday resumed the gruesome search for victims of a train wreck blamed on Maoist saboteurs, with fears that the final death toll could exceed 150.
More than 30 hours after a Mumbai-bound high-speed passenger train from Kolkata careened off the tracks in a remote part of West Bengal, emergency teams were still trying to cut their way into mangled compartments.
"So far, 90 bodies have been recovered," West Bengal police inspector general Surajit Kar Purakayastha told AFP.
"But that\’s going to rise as two of the carriages that crashed into the freight train have yet to be fully searched," he said.
West Bengal\’s civil defence minister, Srikumar Mukherjee, said as many as 70 passengers were still missing.
It was the deadliest Maoist attack in recent memory and is likely to ramp up pressure on the government which has already been severely criticised for its handling of the left-wing insurgency.
The precise cause of the derailment in the early hours of Friday morning was still unclear.
Railways Minister Mamata Banerjee said Maoists had blown up the track with explosives, while police pointed to evidence that a section of rail had been manually removed.
Senior police officials on Friday had laid the blame squarely at the feet of the rebels, saying several Maoist leaflets had been left at the site of the disaster.
But Indian Home Secretary G.K. Pillai suggested there was still room for inquiry.
"It\’s likely to be them (Maoists). There is no one else in the area. But we are still checking," Pillai told AFP.
The incident occurred at around 1:30 am (2000 GMT Thursday) in West Midnapore — a Maoist stronghold around 135 kilometres (85 miles) west of Kolkata.
The Indian Railways Board responded by cancelling nighttime services in a number of Maoist-affected areas until further notice.
Thirteen carriages, most of them packed with sleeping passengers, jumped the tracks and most of the casualties were in four that collided with an oncoming goods train.
More than 200 people were injured, some of them critically.
"Terrorists, Not Maoists," thundered the Times of India in a front-page headline that reflected the general media mood that the left-wing extremists had forfeited their claim to be the champions of India\’s dispossessed.
The Maoist rebellion, which Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has labelled the biggest threat to the country\’s internal security, began in West Bengal in 1967 and has since spread to 20 of India\’s 29 states.
The rebels say they are fighting for the rights of landless tribespeople and farmers left behind by India\’s rapid economic expansion.
The Times also questioned whether the federal government might "lack the stomach for an all-out war" with the Maoists.
Until now, the government has resisted pressure to deploy the military, insisting that paramilitary and state police forces were capable of flushing the guerrillas out of their jungle bases.
But a recent series of deadly attacks has prompted a strategy review which some observers believe might see the army and air force being brought in — although not necessarily in a combat role.
Heavy cranes arrived at the scene of the wreck Saturday, and began lifting some of the battered coaches away from the tracks.