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Death toll tops 200 in religious riots in India

Religious riots sparked by Hindu fundamentalists' attempts to seize a Moslem mosque intensified Thursday, and the death toll in nine days of clashes rose to more than 200. News agencies and officials reported at least 31 people died across the country on Thursday. They were killed in battles between Hindus and Moslems or when police fired on mobs or when victims died in hospitals of injuries suffered in earlier riots.

At least 210 people have died since Oct. 24, when the fighting began.

Most of the deaths were in Uttar Pradesh, the state where the disputed shrine is located, and in Gujarat state. Both states have a history of sectarian clashes and simmering tensions between Hindus and Moslems.

Uttar Pradesh is India's most populous state. At least 30 percent of its 120-million people are Moslems. Violence has erupted in 22 of its 63 districts, according to police officials in Lucknow, the state capital.

Dozens of towns across India were placed under curfew.

Members of the fundamentalist World Hindu Council vowed to continue their efforts to take over the disputed site. Ashok Singhal, the council's general secretary, told a public meeting outside Ayodhya his group would not give up its campaign to replace the mosque with a temple.

Singhal is wanted by the police. His appearance at a well-publicized meeting attended by thousands of people lent credence to reports that many police officers are sympathetic to the Hindu movement.

"There is no power on earth which can stop us from building the temple," Singhal told the crowd.

Singhal sustained injuries during Tuesday's attack on the temple. He later slipped away from the hospital where he was treated.

The World Hindu Council says the 460-year-old Babri mosque is built over the birthplace of Lord Rama, one of the most revered Hindu gods.

At least 900 people were killed in Hindu-Moslem violence last year when the group first announced its intention to take over the site by force.

The dispute has threatened to bring down Prime Minister V.P. Singh's 11-month-old government. A pro-Hindu party, which had supported the government coalition, withdrew its backing two weeks ago when its president was arrested while leading a march to drum up support for the temple construction.

Political commentators and newspapers have attacked Singh for what they call his vacillation on the temple-mosque dispute, saying it is the greatest threat to India's political system since the country became independent in 1947.

India is predominantly Hindu and all its prime ministers have belonged to the majority community, but tolerance of all religions and secularism is a part of its constitution.

Hindus make up 82 percent of India's 880-million people and Moslems 12 percent of the population. The others include Sikhs, Christians and Buddhists.