THIRUVANANTHAPURAM, Jan 15 (AFP) - More than 100 Hindu devotees were killed after a road accident triggered a stampede among thousands of pilgrims returning from an Indian religious festival, officials said today.
The Friday evening tragedy unfolded in a remote, mountainous area of southern Kerala as pilgrims made their way home from an annual ceremony at the hill shrine of Sabarimala that draws three to four million people each year.
|A general view of the stampede site in Pullumedu in the southern Indian state of Kerala yesterday. AFP
Kerala Home Secretary Jaya Kumar told AFP that 104 people had been confirmed dead and dozens more injured, some of them seriously.
Police officials said a packed jeep had lost control and ploughed into a crowd of devotees packed onto a narrow road in a hilly and densely forested area 10 kilometres (six miles) from the shrine.
“The accident caused a mass panic and triggered a stampede on the hillside,” said Special Police Commissioner Rajendra Nair.
The search for bodies and survivors had been hampered by the remote location, heavy mist and the thick forest terrain.
Indian television showed pictures of casualties being passed over the heads of tightly packed crowds of pilgrims in a rescue effort that stretched deep into the night.
Defence Minister A.K. Antony called the incident “a tragedy beyond anyone's imagination” and said local military units had been put on standby if needed.
The stampede occurred on the final day of the pilgrimage at the Sabarimala shrine, located in Idukki district, about 200 kilometres from the state capital Thiruvananthapuram.
It is the second time in recent memory that the festival has been struck by disaster. In 1999 more than 50 Hindu devotees died after a landslide on a crowded hillside at the site.
Stampedes at public events in India are common as large numbers of people crowd into congested areas. Few safety regulations and absent or inadequate policing mean panic can spread quickly with deadly consequences.