Truck crash kills 85 pilgrims in India

( AFP ) - Rescuers in India recovered the bodies of 85 people Saturday from the mangled wreckage of a truck that plunged into a ravine in one of the country's worst accidents in recent years, police said.

Some 200 pilgrims were crowded on the truck travelling to a religious fair in the desert state of Rajasthan in western India, and apart from the fatalities some 60 people were injured, many of them seriously, police said.

"People have been taken out of the gorge," said police superintendent Rupinder Singh in Rajsamand district, where the accident occurred after dark on Friday. "Eighty-five bodies have been recovered."

Police said they were trying to confirm the whereabouts of some 50 remaining passengers, adding that many of them were believed to have survived.

Anxious villagers thronged hospitals where the injured had been taken.

About 10 cranes were brought to the accident site overnight as rescuers using searchlights scrambled to find survivors and recover bodies.

After dawn Saturday the operation had been scaled back to recover the badly damaged truck, an AFP correspondent said, as survivors searched for their scattered belongings.

The truck driver lost control on a sharp bend in a mountainous region and smashed through a protective roadside wall, plunging into the 80-foot (25-metre) deep gorge, said Singh.

Television channels showed the injured attached to intravenous drips in hospital, including one boy in a blue shirt with a thick bandage around his head.

"We were travelling and suddenly the brakes failed," the boy told the Aaj Tak channel. "We were going for free."

Some villagers had already taken the bodies of their family members back home to perform last rites Saturday, while others were still trying to identify the dead.

At least three people were so badly mutilated in the accident that their remains were no longer identifiable, police said.

Rajasthan's home minister has asked district officials to investigate how the 10-wheel truck -- meant for hauling cars and heavy equipment -- was allowed to transport people.

"We are doing an enquiry into how so many people were travelling like this," said Gulab Chand Kataria.

Rescuers at the accident site 200 kilometres ( 124 miles) from Jodhpur city were trying to salvage the wreckage of the 10-wheel truck, police added.

The driver, who was killed in the accident, appeared to have used a wooden plank to rig up extra seating, police said, and may have offered a free ride to the shrine of a mystic saint revered by both Hindus and Muslims.

His own family was also on the truck, but their whereabouts were not immediately known, police said.

Thousands of pilgrims travel to neighbouring Ramdevra village to attend the annual festival of the saint Ramdev, believed to have the power to cure leprosy and other diseases.

The state government announced compensation of 50,000 rupees (1,225 dollars) for the relatives of the deceased.

Major accidents are common in India due to bad roads, overloaded and ill-maintained vehicles and careless driving.

The Delhi-based Institute of Road Traffic Education of India says the country accounts for nearly 10 percent of fatal accidents worldwide.

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