At least five people including four Hindu leaders were killed in an attack by suspected Maoist militants in India's eastern state of Orissa, news reports said Sunday. ( dpa )
A group of 50 guerrillas attacked an ashram or hermitage in the Tumudibandh area of central Kandhamal district during celebrations on Saturday evening to mark Janamashtami, the birth of Hindu deity Krishna.
The attackers threw grenades and opened fire on the gathering, killing senior leader and ashram chief Lashmananda Saraswati, Arupananda, Chinmayananda and Mata Bhaktimaye, the PTI news agency reported.
The victims belonged to Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council), one of India's largest Hindu nationalist groups which has opposed conversions of tribal people to Christianity in the region.
An unidentified person was also killed in the attack that occurred 340 kilometres west of state capital Bhubaneshwar, the agency said.
The police could not confirm whether the attackers were Maoist rebels or comment on the motive behind the attack.
"It looks like Naxal attack but we are verifying," Gopal Chandra Nanda, the state's police chief told the IANS news agency.
After hearing the news of killings on Sunday, thousands of people protested and blocked roads and railways in and around the district, which has a history of communal violence.
"We strongly condemn this heinous crime. The guilty will be dealt with stringently," Orissa Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik told reporters. He said police and local agencies were placed on high alert to prevent sectarian clashes.
Additional security forces including Central Reserve Police Force were also deployed in the area.
The Kandhamal district has a population of about 600,000 including 150,000 Christians, and is considered one of the most sensitive areas of Orissa state.
It witnessed clashes between Hindu groups and Christians during Christmas in December.
Right-wing Hindu groups accuse Christian missionaries of luring poor and uneducated tribals with money and promises of jobs, education and healthcare.
Christian groups say the tribal people turn to Christianity to escape the indignities of being on the fringe of the Hindu caste system.