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India's Modi appeals for calm as riot toll in capital rises to 24

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi appealed for peace in Delhi on Wednesday after days of Hindu-Muslim clashes over a disputed new citizenship law sparked some of the worst sectarian violence seen in the capital in decades.

At least 24 people were killed and hundreds more wounded in the riots, according to hospital officials, with many suffering gunshot wounds, amid incidents of stone-pelting, arson and looting that coincided with U.S. President Donald Trump’s first visit to India.

Police and paramilitary forces patrolled the streets in far greater numbers on Wednesday, and swathes of the riot-hit areas were deserted.

“Peace and harmony are central to our ethos. I appeal to my sisters and brothers of Delhi to maintain peace and brotherhood at all times,” Modi said in a tweet.

Modi’s appeal came after criticism from opposition parties over the government’s failure to control the violence, despite the use of tear gas, pellets and smoke grenades.

Sonia Gandhi, president of the opposition Congress party, called for the resignation of Home Minister Amit Shah, who is directly responsible for law and order in the capital.

The violence erupted between thousands demonstrating for and against the new legislation passed by Modi’s Hindu nationalist government.

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The Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) makes it easier for non-Muslims from some neighboring Muslim-dominated countries to gain Indian citizenship.

Critics say the law is biased against Muslims and undermines India’s secular constitution. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party has denied having any bias against India’s 180 million plus Muslims.

On Wednesday, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) said it was alarmed by the violence and it urged the Indian government “to rein in mobs and protect religious minorities and others who have been targeted”.

Separately, the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi urged its citizens on Wednesday to be cautious following disturbances.

Reuters witnesses saw mobs wielding sticks and pipes walking down streets in parts of northeast Delhi on Tuesday, amid arson attacks and pillaging. Thick clouds of black smoke billowed from a tire market that was set ablaze.

In northeast Delhi’s Brijpuri district, where Hindus and Muslims live in densely-packed houses separated by narrow lanes, parts of a mosque lay charred and an adjoining anti-government protest site lay in rubble and burnt.

Slideshow ( 17 images )

A first-aid post near the mosque stood smashed to bits, and the inside of the mosque was scorched, with melted fans hanging from the ceiling and molten prayer mats fused to the floor.

“The police should have protected both sides, but they only helped one side,” local resident Mohammad Arif said.

Both sides appeared involved in the violence, however, and there were both Hindu and Muslim victims being treated for injuries in a local hospital.

Slideshow ( 17 images )

At Arun Modern Public School, a few houses down from the mosque, entire classrooms were burnt and on the street outside, desks pulled out from classrooms lay strewn on the road.

“A Muslim mob of several hundred broke in and ransacked the school,” said Pawan Kumar, a guard at the school.

A nearby building owned by a Hindu was still smoldering.

“If the police hadn’t come, we wouldn’t have survived,” said Sudama, a Hindu resident.

Deaths during India's citizenship protests tmsnrt.rs/2HYRxcJ

Reporting by Devjyot Ghoshal and Manoj Kumar with additional reporting by Aftab Ahmed, Danish Siddiqui and Zeba Siddiqui; Writing by Euan Rocha; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore, Raju Gopalakrishnan and Mark Heinrich

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