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Army out in India's famed Darjeeling hills

KOLKATA, India, June 12 (Reuters) - Protesters clashed with police in India's famed Darjeeling hills on Thursday as a strike over demands for a separate state triggerred violence and forced the government to call for the army, police and witnesses said.

Gorkhas, who are ethnic Nepalis, have been demanding a separate state called "Gorkhaland" be carved out of the eastern state of West Bengal to protect their culture and heritage.

Supporters of the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (Gorkha People's Liberation Front) asked tourists to leave Darjeeling town to avoid getting caught in the strike.

On Thursday, supporters of the ruling communist government said tourists had been beaten up by Gorkhas and called a parallel strike in Siliguri, a town on the foothills, officials said.

They also beat up ethnic Nepalis, triggerring clashes that police tried to contain with batons and tear gas. Dozens of people were injured.

"The Gorkhas were chased away by the Bengali speaking people from the plains who are opposed to the statehood (demand)," K.L. Tamta, a senior police officer said.

In Siliguri, hundreds of Communist supporters on motorcycles tried to enforce a strike, officials and witnesses said.

They also blocked roads to cut off supplies to the hills and forced traders to close shops.

In Darjeeling town, a three-hour drive from Siliguri, Gorkhas relaxed an indefinite strike for two days to allow tourists to leave the hills.

"We have nothing against tourists, the communist supporters are spreading violence and blaming it on us," Roshan Giri, a senior Gorkha leader said from Darjeeling.

At least 1,200 people died in the first Gorkhaland campaign in the 1980s, but protests ended a few years later after Gorkha leaders accepted limited autonomy.

Tour operators have warned tourists to avoid Darjeeling for the time being.

"As responsible tour operators we have asked tourists not to come to Darjeeling," said Samrat Sanyal of Eastern Himalaya Tour and Travel Operators' Association. (Reporting by Sujoy Dhar; Editing by Bappa Majumdar and David Fox)

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