Stampede kills 24 pilgrims in ancient Indian city of Varanasi

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - At least 24 people died and dozens more were hurt in a stampede in the ancient northern Indian city of Varanasi on Saturday, officials said.

Panic spread as thousands of Hindu pilgrims tried to cross a bridge to a sacred site in one of the world’s oldest inhabited cities, at the heart of the home constituency of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

“Rumors about the bridge collapse led to chaos after a man fell down in a crowd,” said police officer Javeed Ahmad.

The incident occurred when thousands of followers of deceased Godman Baba Jai Gurudev were on their way to Domri village in a remote corner of Varanasi district to take part in the two-day ritual at a camp on the Ganges, Varanasi district magistrate Vijay Kiron Anand told Reuters.

Millions of Hindus go to Varanasi every year to pray and wash away their sins by taking a dip in the sacred river Ganges.

Modi, who was hosting a meeting of BRICS nations in the state of Goa, expressed his condolences to the victims’ families and promised help.

Local police claimed that the stampede occurred because the number of devotees went far beyond their estimates.

“The organizers had sought permission for a gathering of just about 5,000 people, but when the crowds started pouring in, they went far beyond 70,000 to 80,000, thereby making it difficult for police on duty,” a local police official said.

Deadly stampedes are common at India’s big pilgrimages and religious festivals. In 2008, 145 people died when a panicking crowd pushed people over a ravine in north India. In 2013 a crowd rush at a railway station killed at least 36 Hindu pilgrims, attending a festival.

Last July, at least 27 were killed and dozens more injured in a stampede at a Hindu festival in south India and in August 10 more died in a similar incident in the eastern state of Jharkhand.

Ravindra Sharma, who was hurt in the stampede on Saturday, said his teenage daughter was missing and the authorities were unable to trace her.

“We came to seek the blessings of our God. Only God can help me find her,” he said.

Writing by Rupam Jain and Euan Rocha; Editing by Andrew Bolton