9 killed, 19 injured in shootout over land in Uttar Pradesh

Sonbhadra/Lucknow: A village head and his supporters allegedly opened fire on a rival group in a land dispute in Sonbhadra, killing nine people, including three women, and leaving 19 injured on Wednesday, police said.

The land in the district's Ghorawal area earlier belonged to an IAS officer and he had sold it to village head Yagya Dutt, who wanted to take its possession, Uttar Pradesh DGP O P Singh told PTI.

When Dutt reached the spot with his henchmen in 10 to 12 tractors, local villagers tried to stop them from taking over the land, police said.

Those accompanying him then showered a hail of bullets on the villagers, all tribals, killing nine of them.

Hours later, a group of sobbing women sat close to the blood-splattered spot, mourning the loss of their dear ones.

In hospital, Ashok Gond (35) said the villagers were working in the fields when armed men attacked them.

We did not get a chance to talk or retaliate. They came in tractors, armed with guns and sticks to grab our land," the injured villager told PTI.

Another victim, Terwa Devi (50) said, "The land was ours, but it was fraudulently registered by the village head. He wanted to get its possession but failed to do so. It seemed that he came determined to kill those who came in his way."                

"What was our fault? We are poor and earn our livelihood only by cultivating this land," she said.

Samajwadi Party president Akhilesh Yadav and Congress general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra attacked the BJP government in Uttar Pradesh, suggesting that the shootout reflected the law and order situation in the state.

The incident, the bloodiest clash over land in recent years in Uttar Pradesh, comes just a day before the Monsoon Session of the state assembly begins.

The police arrested Girijesh and Vimlesh, two nephews of the village head, and are trying to trace him as well.

A house-to-house search was underway to nab those involved in the shootout, police said.

"We have also alerted the Madhya Pradesh police and, if needed, action against the IAS officer will also be initiated," the DGP said.

The land dispute had been festering for some time and police said they had initiated the process of attaching the property.

Eight of the dead, all belonging to the Gond tribe, were identified as Ramchandra (50), Rajesh Gond (28), Ashok (30), Ramdhari (60), Ramsundar (50), Jawahir (48), Durgawati (42) and Sukhwanti (40).  An unidentified woman, about 45 years old, is also among the dead, police said.

Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath has directed the Director General of Police to personally monitor the case and ensure action against the culprits, a government spokesperson said.

Adityanath also directed the Mirzapur commissioner and Additional Director General (Varanasi zone) to jointly investigate the cause of the clash and fix responsibility within 24 hours.

The condition of some of the 19 injured is said to be critical.

The spokesperson said Adityanath has offered his condolences to the families of those killed.

Inspector General (Law and Order) Praveen Kumar said the clash took place in a remote spot in the Ghorawal police station area.

The gram pradhan had purchased the 90 bighas of land two years back, he said.

A police team led by the Sonbhadra's superintendent of police also reached the spot, Kumar said.

Two men were arrested and the situation immediately brought under control, he said.

Samajwadi Party president Akhilesh Yadav condemned the incident, claiming was one more massacre during the tenure of the BJP, "which has surrendered before criminals".

 "The murder of nine people in Sonbhadra over a land dispute symbolises terror and oppression. The government should initiate strict action against the guilty and give Rs 20 lakh compensation to the victims' families," he said.

 Congress general secretary Priyanka Gandhi said he criminals' morale is high in the BJP regime and murders are being committed in broad daylight.

 "The Sonbhadra incident is heart-rending and has caught the administration, CM and ministers napping," she said.

Mineral-rich Sonbhadra, about 400 km from the state capital, is the second largest district in Uttar Pradesh and the only one in the country sharing its boundary with four other states -- Madhya Pradesh, Chhattishgarh, Jharkhand and Bihar.

The district has several power plants and is sometimes called the country's energy capital.