, SARDIHA, May 28 – An express train packed with sleeping passengers derailed in India Friday and slammed into a goods train, killing at least 30 people in a suspected attack by Maoist rebels, officials said.
More bodies were feared trapped 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 had suggested the derailment was triggered by an explosion, but senior police officers said there was evidence that the fishplates used to secure adjoining sections of track had been removed.
"We found some Maoist leaflets at the site so it appears to be the work of Maoists," West Bengal police chief Bhupinder Singh told AFP.
"It seems there are still a large number of passengers trapped in the carriages — dead or alive, we are not sure," Singh said.
The official death toll stood at 20, but a doctor treating the injured at the site told the NDTV television network that at least 30 people had been killed.
Three of the carriages were badly crushed and flipped on their sides with body parts clearly visible amid the twisted metal.
Rescue workers with bolt cutters struggled to find a way in and free anyone still alive inside.
Paramedic teams treated the injured on the side of the track, while the most serious cases were taken away by air force helicopters brought in to support the rescue efforts.
Singh said more than 120 people had been injured, some of them in critical condition.
Railways Minister Mamata Bannerjee, who rushed to the site, confirmed that Maoists were believed to be responsible.
"The railways are a soft target. They are a lifeline … which the Maoists have attacked in the past and, it seems, even now," she told reporters.
The incident occurred at around 1:30 am (2000 GMT Thursday) in a remote 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.
If it is confirmed that Maoists were involved in Friday\’s incident, it will heap more pressure on the federal government which has already been forced to review its anti-Maoist strategy after a series of deadly attacks.
Until now, the government has resisted growing 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.
India\’s Maoist 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 rebellion the biggest threat to the country\’s internal security.
In April, rebels ambushed and killed 76 policemen the central state of Chhattisgarh in the bloodiest massacre of security forces so far by the extremists.
And earlier this month a Maoist landmine in Chhattisgarh tore the front off a bus, killing 24 civilians and 11 police personnel.
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.