MUZAFFARNAGAR, India — Security forces have been ordered to shoot rioters on sight, as sectarian violence spread in northern India on Monday despite an army-enforced curfew imposed after deadly weekend clashes broke out between Hindus and Muslims.
Gunfire and street battles that erupted Saturday in villages around Muzaffarnagar in Uttar Pradesh state have killed at least 31 people and left many more wounded or missing, police said. Both sides have blamed the other for starting the violence.
Police had arrested 200 people by Monday evening. Soldiers deployed to the region have been given orders to shoot rioters on sight, state government official Kamal Saxena said.
Still, the violence spread to the neighboring districts of Shamli and Meerut. A state of alert has been declared for Uttar Pradesh, the scene of some of India's worst communal violence when a Hindu mob razed a 16th century mosque in Ayodhya in 1992.
Hundreds of people, some packed into bullock carts, tried to flee areas where their community represents a minority. One family trying to leave Kuttba village on Sunday was beaten with metal rods and wooden sticks when caught between fighting factions.
"The whole village was very tense. I wanted to send my family to a safer place," said Munavar, 24, who uses only one name, as his wife, 8-month-old daughter and 6-year-old niece lay on hospital beds nearby wearing bloody clothes and gauze bandages over their heads.
The violence began Saturday night after a meeting of thousands of Hindu farmers called for justice in the Aug. 27 killing of three young men from Kawal village. Officials said some farmers delivered hate-filled speeches against Muslims.
Clashes with Muslims broke out after the meeting, with many using guns, swords, stones or knives, senior police officer Arun Kumar said.
One 26-year-old farmer, Anuvesh Baliyan, said he and others were attacked in Purvalian village as they were returning home on a tractor from the meeting. He said a mob wielding metal rods and swords surrounded the tractor and began beating them.
"We hid in a field for a full night until troops arrived the next day," he said at Muzaffarnagar's hospital, where he was being treated for sword wounds to his head and leg.
In the village of Mirapur Padav, 50-year-old Salma Liaquat said she was sitting in her open-sided hut Monday morning when four men came out of the forest, shot her in the leg with a pistol and ran away. She and her neighbors, nervous about the rising tension, had asked police to patrol the area.
"We kept calling the police because we were scared," neighbor Shahid Ansari said. "But they didn't come until after the attack."
Hindu and Muslim patients were being kept in separate rooms at the hospital in Muzaffarnagar, about 125 kilometers (78 miles) north of New Delhi.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh expressed grief and shock over the deaths, while the central government warned that communal violence was expected to escalate further in the run-up to next year's national elections. Already this year, 451 incidents have been reported, compared with 410 for all of 2012, Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde said.
As local politicians on all sides accused one another of inciting the latest violence in Uttar Pradesh, the state barred people including politicians from visiting riot-affected areas.
The state's opposition blamed the government for failing to maintain law and order, while the state's top elected official accused opposition parties of inciting the violence to undermine his administration.
"The violence is a political conspiracy to defame and destabilize my government," Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav said.
Shops and schools were closed Monday in and around Muzaffarnagar. Soldiers were searching homes for weapons. Some 5,000 paramilitary officers joined the troops and thousands of local police on patrol.
Authorities stopped all newspaper deliveries and TV broadcasts in the area, but incendiary rumors spread by mobile phones and social media were still fueling the violence and making it difficult for soldiers to restore calm, state police inspector Ashish Gupta said.
The neighboring mountain state of Uttarakhand was also on alert.
Associated Press writer Biswajeet Banerjee reported from Lucknow, India.