At least 24 people including two policemen were killed during the evacuation of a public park occupied by a sect in northern India, police said Friday.
More than 2,500 members of the semi-religious sect occupied the park in Mathura city for more than two years before police on Thursday warned them of their latest eviction order by the court.
More than 300 members of the Swadhin Bharat Vidhik Satyagrah group were arrested, 124 of them for charges of damaging public property and murder, state police chief S Javeed Ahmad said.
The squatters opened fire from treetops while others pelted stones at the police team, leading to deaths of two senior police officers.
"Police responded with tear gas and fired back in retaliation. The protestors set ablaze their makeshift huts while fleeing, causing explosions of cooking gas cylinders," Ahmad said.
"Many squatters were caught and thrashed by locals with sticks as they fled. A total of 22 protesters including one woman have died, 11 in the fire, and the remaining who were wounded in the beatings," he added.
More than 100 people were injured in the riot at Mathura. Located some 150 kilometres south-east of Delhi, Mathura is a prominent Hindu holy city, home to several temples.
Police had cleared the 108-hectare park of squatters by late Thursday night and recovered a huge cache of weapons including rifles, Ahmad said.
The evicted group was thought to be a faction of a Hindu religious organization that follows the 20th-Century freedom fighter Subhash Chandra Bose, reports said.
In postings on social media, the group’s followers describe themselves as political and social revolutionaries and its demands include abolition of elections and cheaper fuel for everyone, broadcaster NDTV reported.
Ahmad admitted there was an intelligence failure. "We knew they had kept firearms and weapons but did not know they would fire upon police with deadly precision," he added.
Police said the park's occupiers resisted earlier court eviction orders on at least seven occasions in the past two years.
State authorities ordered an inquiry into Thursday's clashes and dispatched additional forces to the region to bring the situation under control. They also announced compensation for families of the policemen killed.
"The culprits will not be spared at any cost. The strictest of action will be taken against them," said Akhilesh Yadav, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh state, where Mathura is located.