The death toll in the train collision in eastern India has gone up to 71, a railways spokesman said.

At least 149 people were injured when two trains collided after one was derailed by what officials said was an act of Maoist sabotage.

The Calcutta-Mumbai passenger train derailed overnight in West Bengal where a section of track had been removed.

Carriages and passengers were thrown in front of a goods train travelling in the opposite direction.

Officials said rescue workers were still struggling to free survivors.

They said the toll was expected to rise as many people have yet to be cut free from the wreckage in the Jhargram area of West Midnapore – about 150kms (90 miles) west of Calcutta.

The area is known to be a stronghold of Maoist rebels.

Maoist claim

The state police chief said a 46cm (1.5ft) portion of the train track was missing, and that the Maoists had claimed responsibility for the act of sabotage.

“We have recovered two posters by a local Maoist militia from the site of the accident,” said West Bengal Director General of Police Bhupinder Singh.

“They have claimed responsibility for the incident in the posters.”

The rebels had called for observance of a “black week” of protests from Friday to Wednesday in five states – including West Bengal – where they wield considerable influence.

Early reports said the passenger train had been derailed by an explosion.

The incident happened at 0130 local time (2000 GMT) on Thursday.

Some 14 hours later, rescue workers were still using sledge hammers and gas cutters to break into carriages where survivors were thought to be trapped, the BBC’s Amitabha Bhattasali reported from the scene.

Bodies are still being removed from mangled carriages and helicopters are airlifting injured passengers to nearby hospitals.

Hundreds of police, troops and emergency workers are involved in the search and recovery effort.

Crushed bodies

Railway spokesman Soumitra Majumdar said five coaches of the passenger train, the Gyaneshwar Express, had been derailed due to missing “fish plates” – which join rails together.

These coaches then fell on to the neighbouring track where they were rammed by the goods train, he said.

There were 13 carriages – including 10 sleeper coaches and a coach with unreserved seating – on the passenger train, the Times of India reported.

Our correspondent said three carriages were totally wrecked, while several others were damaged.

Among the emergency teams sent to the scene were 12 doctors and 20 paramedics from Kharagpur, and two doctors from the Kalaikunda airbase in the district, the newspaper reported.

India’s railway minister, Mamata Banerjee, has visited the crash site to oversee the rescue operation.

The government has been under pressure following a wave of Maoist-led violence, the most audacious one taking place in April when 76 paramilitary troopers were ambushed and killed.

It was the single biggest attack on the Indian security forces by the rebels.

The BBC’s Amitabha Bhattasali describes devastation at the crash scene

The death toll in the train collision in eastern India has gone up to 71, a railways spokesman said.

At least 149 people were injured when two trains collided after one was derailed by what officials said was an act of Maoist sabotage.

The Calcutta-Mumbai passenger train derailed overnight in West Bengal where a section of track had been removed.

Carriages and passengers were thrown in front of a goods train travelling in the opposite direction.

Officials said rescue workers were still struggling to free survivors.

They said the toll was expected to rise as many people have yet to be cut free from the wreckage in the Jhargram area of West Midnapore – about 150kms (90 miles) west of Calcutta.

The area is known to be a stronghold of Maoist rebels.

Maoist claimThe state police chief said a 46cm (1.5ft) portion of the train track was missing, and that the Maoists had claimed responsibility for the act of sabotage.

“We have recovered two posters by a local Maoist militia from the site of the accident,” said West Bengal Director General of Police Bhupinder Singh.

“They have claimed responsibility for the incident in the posters.”

The rebels had called for observance of a “black week” of protests from Friday to Wednesday in five states – including West Bengal – where they wield considerable influence.

Early reports said the passenger train had been derailed by an explosion.

The incident happened at 0130 local time (2000 GMT) on Thursday.

Some 14 hours later, rescue workers were still using sledge hammers and gas cutters to break into carriages where survivors were thought to be trapped, the BBC’s Amitabha Bhattasali reported from the scene.

Bodies are still being removed from mangled carriages and helicopters are airlifting injured passengers to nearby hospitals.

Hundreds of police, troops and emergency workers are involved in the search and recovery effort.

Crushed bodiesRailway spokesman Soumitra Majumdar said five coaches of the passenger train, the Gyaneshwar Express, had been derailed due to missing “fish plates” – which join rails together.

These coaches then fell on to the neighbouring track where they were rammed by the goods train, he said.

There were 13 carriages – including 10 sleeper coaches and a coach with unreserved seating – on the passenger train, the Times of India reported.

Our correspondent said three carriages were totally wrecked, while several others were damaged.

Among the emergency teams sent to the scene were 12 doctors and 20 paramedics from Kharagpur, and two doctors from the Kalaikunda airbase in the district, the newspaper reported.

India’s railway minister, Mamata Banerjee, has visited the crash site to oversee the rescue operation.

The government has been under pressure following a wave of Maoist-led violence, the most audacious one taking place in April when 76 paramilitary troopers were ambushed and killed.

It was the single biggest attack on the Indian security forces by the rebels.

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.

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 (by bbc.co.uk)

MUMBAI, India (AP) — A strike by Air India employees entered its second day, forcing the cancellation of over 100 flights — one more blow for the beleaguered national carrier days after one of its planes exploded in India’s worst aviation disaster in over a decade.

Analysts say the strike reflects a deepening crisis within Air India, which lost an estimated $1 billion last year and has been plagued by friction between management and employees.

Early Saturday an Air India flight from Dubai overshot the runway in the southern Indian city of Mangalore, killing 158 of the 166 people on board.

Members of two of Air India’s 14 unions walked out shortly after noon Tuesday to protest a management order not to talk to reporters and delayed salary payments.

J.B. Kadian, general secretary of the Air Corporation Employees Union — which says it is Air India’s largest union with 12,000 members — claimed that 15,000 workers walked out. The engineer’s union joined the agitation.

Air India spokesman S. Chandra Kumar said Wednesday that only 1,000 workers had walked out.

Kadian said workers protested after management disciplined union leaders for talking to the press. He said staff have also been upset by six months of delayed salary payments and short staffing of cabin crews.

When asked about the appropriateness of striking so soon after a deadly crash, he hung up the phone.

The government took a hard line as union talks Wednesday yielded no immediate progress. Officials did not rule out the politically contentious step of laying off striking workers.

Civil Aviation Minister Praful Patel told reporters that management is “free to take any strong action.”

“This is absolutely irresponsible behavior,” he said.

Spokesman Kumar said 76 flights will be canceled Wednesday, after more than 32 flights were grounded Tuesday. Almost all the affected flights are domestic.

Indian television stations showed images of angry and despondent passengers stranded during a peak travel season in India.

Kumar said the airline had not ruled out firing the striking workers. “We are trying to be fair but firm,” he said in a telephone interview.

He said it’s too early to tally the financial cost of the strike, but about 30 percent of Air India’s flights have been affected.

Unions that did not strike condemned the action.

“At a time when we are mourning the death of our colleagues and passengers, it’s grossly incorrect,” said Sanjay Lazar, general secretary of the All-India Cabin Crew Association, which says it represents 3,000 Air India cabin crew and executives. “It’s a time for us to heal and move forward. All the bodies have not yet been identified.”

Air India was once a source of national pride. Founded by J.R.D. Tata, one of India’s most revered industrialists, the airline has disintegrated as a viable business and survives thanks to a 20 billion rupee ($421 million) government bailout.

Today, a visit to an Air India ticket office can be a trip back in time, with four employees watching a fifth laboriously write out tickets by hand.

“When you have a large section of the organization striking a few days after a national tragedy, it reflects no concern for the organization,” said Kapil Kaul, chief of the India unit of the Center for Asia Pacific Aviation, an independent aviation research group. “It is a wake-up call for the government — the situation is so deep that their continuing inaction could be fatal for the company.”

The government has demanded a turnaround plan and cost reductions, but stopped short of ordering layoffs. Kaul estimates that the airline’s 30,000 staffers should be slashed by half.

Kaul expects the airline will lose as much as $5 billion over the next five years.

An attempt to trim performance-linked pay resulted in a five-day strike by pilots in September, with some 400 canceled flights.

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(By ERIKA KINETZ AP Business Writer)

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