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Kripalu Maharaj's Pratapgarh ashram stampede: more than 15 dead

The promise of a free lunch and utensils turned fatal Thursday when 63 people were killed and more than 30 injured in a stampede that broke out when thousands gathered at an Uttar Pradesh ashram for a death anniversary ceremony.

The entry gate of Kripaluji Maharaj's ashram near Kunda town in Pratapgarh district, about 180 km from here, caved in, triggering a stampede that claimed 60 lives and turned the place into a veritable graveyard.

The dead included a large number of women and children.

"Sixty-three bodies had been recovered but more casualties cannot be ruled out as some of the injured were serious and rushed to the Allahabad medical college for specialised treatment," Additional Director General of Police (law and order) Brij Lal said.

The tragedy occurred when thousands of followers had converged at the Bhakti Dham ashram to attend the annual 'bhandara' (free lunch) hosted by Kripaluji Maharaj on the occasion of his wife's death anniversary.

"Thousands of disciples of the godman had made a beeline for the ashram to attend the 'bhandara' and to get freebies like clothes and utensils when the gate suddenly gave way, bringing under its weight a number of people," Lal said.

"People ran helter-skelter in panic, leading to a stampede, that took a heavier toll, turning the whole place into a mass graveyard," he added.

Some devotees alleged that the situation turned worse when the police used batons to disperse the crowds.

Rescue parties were rushed by the state from Allahabad while a top official was flown from Lucknow to personally take stock of the situation and report to Chief Minister Mayawati.

Legislator of the area Raghuraj Pratap Singh, better known as Raja Bhaiya, told IANS over the phone from Kunda: "The number of deaths are bound to rise as a number of the injured are critical."

He criticised the "slow rescue operations" and said: "Although the event has been an annual feature since the death of Kripaluji Maharaj's wife, this time the crowds swelled because of his prior announcement that some utensils would also be distributed along with lunch."

Kripaluji Maharaj could not be contacted as he was stated to be busy supervising the relief work.

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