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Christmas carnage on Orissa churches

Bhubaneswar, Dec. 25: One man died and nearly a dozen churches burned since last night as clashes over celebrating Christmas turned a communally sensitive south Orissa district into a seething battle zone today.

The violence forced authorities to clamp curfew in four towns in Kondhmal district while 22 police platoons kept guard at different points in Daringibadi, Baliguda, Brahmonigaon and Phulbani, sources said.

State police chief Gopal Chandra Nanda said the situation was tense and that inspector-general Pradeep Kapur was camping at Phulbani, the district headquarters, and “keeping a close watch”.

Chief minister Naveen Patnaik has appealed for peace and communal harmony and asked residents to cooperate with the district administration.

Kondhmal superintendent of police Narsingh Bhol said the violence flared when some minority residents of Brahmonigaon wanted to celebrate Christmas in a big way and members of another community tried to stop them. It led to a clash that left at least four persons injured.

The revenue divisional commissioner (south), Satyabrata Sahu, confirmed that an unidentified youth ó apparently a Christian ó was killed in clashes around 1 this afternoon at Barakhamba, a village near Daringibadi, about 300km from state capital Bhubaneswar.

The violence underlined the simmering communal tension in the state, where missionary Graham Staines and his two sons were burnt to death by a mob, though the January 1999 murders took place in the state’s north.

The situation in Kondhmal, earlier known as Phulbani, was already tense after yesterday’s attack on Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader Swami Laxmananda Saraswati near Daringibadi while he was on his way to Brahmonigaon to perform a yagna.

VHP activists called a four-hour bandh across the state today to protest against the attack.

Bhol said Saraswati, his bodyguard and driver were injured in the assault. In retaliation, a group of people attacked a church in Baliguda last night. The violence then spread to other areas of the district.

Police sources said three churches were set on fire last night, while nine more were either ransacked or torched today.

Sources said thousands were denied entry into churches in different parts of the district as VHP workers tried to enforce the bandh.

Traffic was disrupted as VHP, Bajrang Dal and BJP workers staged road blocks from 8 in the morning to 12 noon.

Saraswati today claimed a senior Congress leader was behind the attack. “They attacked to eliminate me,” he said.

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