NEW DELHI (AP) — Thousands of devotees of an Indian spiritual leader who is wanted for questioning in a 2006 murder case fought running battles with police Tuesday outside the guru's heavily fortified ashram in northern India.
About 190 people, including more than 100 security forces, were injured in the melee as authorities tried to move in and arrest 63-year-old Sant Rampal, police said.
After hours of fighting, police armed with tear gas, batons and bulldozers still had not managed to break into the compound in Haryana state. By nightfall, police broke through half of a 20-foot wall but decided to stop out of fears it was booby trapped and would explode.
"We have given an ultimatum to Rampal and others to come out," said Shriniwas Vashisht, the director-general of police in Haryana, some 175 kilometers (110 miles) from New Delhi. "We want to ensure that innocent people inside the ashram are not harmed."
Thousands of people — many of them armed with guns, rocks and even small bags of acid — were in and around the compound to fight off the police and prevent Rampal's arrest, according to Vashisht. He said 105 security forces were among the injured, including nine with bullet wounds.
He also said many people inside the ashram were probably being held against their will.
"There have been people who have been calling us and saying that they have been stopped inside the ashram forcefully," he said in a televised news conference.
The standoff, which had been simmering since last week, escalated Tuesday after police blared warnings on megaphones and then fired tear gas into Rampal's complex.
Earlier, police tried to flush out Rampal and his supporters for several days by cutting electricity and water to the compound.
Even as the clashes raged outside the ashram, there were reports that the guru had left. Ashram spokesman Raj Kapoor told Press Trust of India that Rampal was unwell and was being treated at an undisclosed location. But Kumar, the police official, said authorities were confident he was still inside.
According to PTI, Rampal and 38 others were charged with murder and other offenses after a violent clash between his supporters and another group killed one person on July 12, 2006. He has been out on bail for several years, but the bail was canceled in July after his followers entered a courtroom and threatened lawyers.
Since 2010, Rampal, an engineer-turned-guru, has ignored 43 court summonses, seeking exemptions each time. The court set a final deadline for him to be present in court on Monday, which he also ignored.
Rampal's supporters say he is too ill to make the 250-kilometer (155-mile) journey from his ashram in Haryana's Hisar district to the court in the state capital, Chandigarh.
Gurus and Hindu holy men as immensely popular in India, with followers that run into millions.
People offer prayers or consult astrologists before taking important personal decisions.
But the enormous power wielded by these self-styled holy men has also led to several scandals in which they are accused of exploiting their followers.
AP writer Chonchui Ngashangva contributed to this report.