Maoists blasted rail tracks in West Midnapore district of West Bengal in the wee hours today, derailing 13 coaches of a Mumbai-bound express train, five of which were hit by a goods train, leaving 65 dead and 104 others injured, the second attack on civilians by Naxals this month. The blast occurred at 1.30am when the Howrah-Kurla Lokmanya Tilak Gyaneshwari Super Deluxe Express was running between Khemasoli and Sardiya stations, about 135km from Jhargram, South Eastern Railway (SER) officials said. It then came into the path of another train coming in the opposite direction. West Bengal Home Secretary Samar Ghosh said that 65 people were killed in the incident. The number of dead was expected to rise after the incident early on Friday. More than 200 passengers have been injured.

Rescue workers gather at the scene of the train mishap in West Bengal, early Friday. Maoists blasted rail tracks in West Midnapore district, derailing the Gyaneshwari Express’s 13 coaches, five of which were hit by a goods train, leaving 20 dead.

“We suspect it is a case of sabotage. The driver (of the passenger train) has reported to have heard a large sound. There was definite tinkering with the tracks,” member railway board Vivek Sahai told reporters in New Delhi. The sleeping passengers were killed when a goods train rammed into four bogies of the Gyaneshwari Express that jumped rails at 1:30 am on Friday morning allegedly after fish plates were removed and portions of tracks cut out deep inside Maoist-dominated West Midnapore district of West Bengal. Twenty-six of the bodies were extricated from the mangled coaches of the train after the 13 coaches derailed with five toppling over an adjacent track, additional superintendent of police, Jhargram, Mukesh Kumar said.

“We had issued a red alert,” he said. Sahai said the deaths were mainly caused by the goods train hitting the three derailed coachs of the Howrah-Kurla Gyaneshwari Super Deluxe Express. “There have been earlier cases of sabotage but never of this scale,” the railway board member said.

Railways Minister Mamata Banerjee who reached the spot said a high level inquiry has been ordered. “We condemn the incident. According to the information from Railways and administration, a bomb blast occurred triggering the incident. I shall write to the Union Home Minister to conduct an enquiry,” said Railway minister Mamata Banerjee at the accident site. The blast occurred when the train was running between Khemasoli and Sardiya stations, about 135 km from Kolkata, South Eastern Railway officials said. 13 bogies including the engine of the Gyaneshwari Express that had left Howrah and was heading for Kurla jumped the rails. A goods train that was coming from the opposite direction crashed on to four of the derailed bogies. As a result, the goods train was itself derailed.

Four bogies (S4, S5, S6, S7) were smashed as relief workers desperately tried to cut through the mangled structures and bring out dead bodies. Bodies were dangling from the wreckage as the relief workers struggled with gas cutters to reach for any possible survivors. The train was full of sleeping passengers, about 70 in each bogie, and no one was sure about the number of casualties. Rail authorities initially claimed that an explosion in the rail tracks have triggered the incident. But police officials, after preliminary survey, indicated more than a foot of tracks were cut out and fish plates were removed.

“We are not yet sure of the Maoist hand at this moment, though it can’t be ruled out either,” said divisional railway manager Anil Handa. “Law and order is a state subject and these are highly sensitive areas. Rajdhani Express was detained in this area last year. The Maoists are observing Kala Divash (Black Day) between May 28 and May 31 here,” said the railway minister. The rebels have called for observance of a “black week” from Friday to Wednesday in the five states, including West Bengal, where they wield considerable influence. But officials say it is too early to say if the Maoists are to blame. She claimed that a pilot engine passed through this route last night but didn’t specify how long before the incident the patrolling took place. This is the second Maoist attack on civilians this month. Naxals had blown up a civilian bus in Dantewada district of Chhattisgarh on May 17, killing at least 36 people, including 12 Special Police Officers. SER PRO Soumitra Majumdar said the train had 24 coaches. After the explosion, 13 including 10 sleeper coaches, derailed of which five were hit by the goods train coming on the opposite track.

Maoist rebels have in recent months stepped up attacks in response to a government security push to flush them out of their jungle bases. They have attacked police, government buildings and infrastructure such as railway stations. Earlier this month they blew up a bus in the state of Chhattisgarh, killing 35 people. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has described the insurgency as India’s biggest internal security challenge. This is a region where Maoists tried to disrupt trains on at least three occasions between October 27, 2009 and May 20, 2010. The incident happened between Sardiha and Khemashuli near Jhargram in West Midnapore at 1:30 on Friday morning and the combined forces arrived after the accident. Relief workers were rushed before dawn. The injured were taken to a hospital in Kharagpur. The next of kin of those dead will be given a compensation of Rs 5 lakh each and the injured will be given Rs 1 lakh each.