MATHURA, India (AP) — Police efforts to evict thousands of people squatting in a makeshift protest camp in the heart of a north Indian city ended in bloodshed as people opened fire from treetops and police retaliated, leaving at least 24 people dead, police said Friday.
More than 370 people have been arrested for alleged involvement in the violence, during which gas cylinders being used by the protesters for cooking exploded and ignited a fire that killed 11 people, according to a top state police officer, Daljit Chaudhary.
He said the victims included two officers who were gunned down when the violence began late Thursday in Mathura, an ancient Hindu temple city on the Yamuna River, about 300 kilometers (200 miles) southwest of Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh state. More than 100 people were injured in the melee, including 23 police officers who were hospitalized with injuries including bullet wounds.
"We knew they had firearms, but we didn't expect them to fire at us the way they did," state police Chief Javed Ahmed said. "They appeared to be well trained in handling arms."
The standoff had been building for about two years, during which thousands of people occupied a 268-acre (108-hectare) patch of government land while demanding a raft of drastic reforms including abolishing the nation's presidential and prime ministerial posts, changing the Indian currency, building public facilities and providing steep discounts on petrol prices, now at about $1 per liter (about $4 per gallon). The protesters said they were part of an independence force that followed the example of Subhash Chandra Bose, one of India's independence leaders who went missing during a military operation in 1945.
Over time, the protest camp grew with makeshift tents, thatched huts, cooking gear and thousands of men, women and children camping out.
In April, the High Court in Allahabad ordered the occupiers to leave. When they refused, police obtained a court order for eviction and on Thursday sent about 30 officers to survey the situation.
They were met with fierce resistance as a few hundred protesters "surrounded them and attacked them with sticks and stones. Protesters hiding on treetops started firing simultaneously," said city resident Ravi Thakur, 24, a cable television technician who witnessed the clashes.
The protesters had strung up barbed wire at the park entrances and refused to be evicted.
Police sent in about 500 reinforcements, who fired rubber bullets and tear gas canisters to clear the area and evict the squatters by Thursday night, he said.
"As the police swung into action, some of the protesters set their thatched huts in the area on fire to block their way," Thakur said. "The clashes continued for about two and a half hours."
As the protesters left the grounds, they were reportedly pelted with stones by some Mathura residents. Police said one of those killed had been lynched, but the details of that attack were unclear.
Police said they seized more than 170 rifles and 40 homemade revolvers.
On Friday, smoke hovered in the air from a few fires still smoldering. Police stood guard at the entrances to the park to keep people from entering while officers continued to search for more weapons, suspects and evidence.
"The culprits will not be spared at any cost. The police had gone there to vacate land following court orders," said Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav, the highest elected official in Uttar Pradesh.
Biswajeet Banerjee reported from Lucknow, India.