CHANDIGARH, India -- Sikh extremists shot dead as many as 125 people aboard two passenger trains in northwestern Punjab state Saturday night in the worst series of attacks by militants since the start of the region's secessionist movement eight years ago.
A dozen Sikh militants halted the first train about 9:45 p.m. by hot- wiring a signal box. Then they boarded the railway cars and opened fire with automatic weapons, killing men, women and children, Punjab government sources said.
The extremists stopped the second train at 10:15 p.m. with a similar trick. They boarded the cars, separated Sikhs from Hindus, forced the Hindus outside and shot them down alongside the railroad tracks, the sources said.
Police said the extremists killed at least 67 people and wounded another 115 in the two massacres near Ludhiana city, 170 miles northwest of New Delhi. But other government sources said 125 were killed. The Press Trust of India news agency reported 110 slain and quoted unofficial sources as saying 125 were killed.
Authorities said the Khalistan Commando Force was believed to be responsible for the attacks. The organization is one of several Sikh extremist groups fighting to create an independent theocratic state called Khalistan, or 'Land of the Pure,' in Punjab.
The attacks came one day after the government declared the entire state a disturbed area, giving the military the power to search homes and arrest people in a bid to lower the level of violence before general elections scheduled for June 22.
The militants have been waging an assassination campaign against candidates for office, killing at least 20 politicians in an apparent attempt to force the government to cancel or postpone the balloting.
The Congress (I) Party, the country's largest political group, has refused to participate in the elections and has repeatedly urged caretaker Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar to call off the balloting.
Hours before the two attacks, Congress (I) Party spokesman Pranab Mukherjee described the Punjab elections as a 'farce' and appealed for authorities to cancel the voting.
'Developments in Punjab, including killing of several candidates and declaring the whole state as a disturbed area, make the party once again urge the government to reconsider its decision,' Mukherjee said.
But state government officials, in declaring the state a disturbed area Friday, vowed not to let violence by Sikh militants interfere with the balloting.
'We are not going to let the election process be derailed,' said Punjab Chief Secretary Tajinder Khanna. 'The army will be there to protect the right of people to elect their own government.'
The first train attack Saturday night took place about 9:45 p.m. at Baddowal, 5 miles southwest of Ludhiana city, police and government sources said. A dozen Sikh militants rigged the signal box to flag down a train traveling between Firozpur and Ludhiana.
Government sources said as the train ground to a stop, the militants boarded the cars and opened fire with automatic weapons, indiscriminately killing men, women and children.
Police said the extremists shot dead 42 people and wounded 15 others aboard the first train. Six train security guards were among those killed, government sources said. The Press Trust said 62 people were killed and 40 wounded.
The second attack took place at 10:15 p.m. near the town of Qila Raipur, 10 miles southwest of Ludhiana, the sources said. The same group of militants rigged a signal to halt a train traveling between Jhakhal and Ludhiana.
Militants boarded the second train and first segregated the Sikhs from the Hindus. They forced the Hindus off the train and shot them down alongside the railroad tracks, government sources said. The Press Trust said the militants kidnapped a guard and train engineer when they escaped following the second attack.
Police said 25 people were killed in the attack and 100 were wounded. The Press Trust said 48 passengers were killed and 30 wounded. Other government sources said 125 people were killed in the two incidents and 72 wounded.
Senior government officials and hospital ambulances rushed to the scene of the two attacks. The wounded were placed in police cars, private vehicles and ambulances and taken to Christian Medical College Hospital and Dayanand Medical College in Ludhiana.
The attacks caused the highest single-day death toll since the start of the Sikh secessionist movement, a campaign that routinely claims 20 to 30 lives in a day. More than 1,300 people have been killed so far this year.
At least 13,000 people have died since the start of Sikh extremist violence in Punjab in 1983. Last year was the worst on record, with about 3,750 killed.
In 1984, then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ordered army troops into the Golden Temple at Amritsar, Sikhdom's holiest shrine, to flush out militants who had taken over and fortified the religious complex. At least 600 people were killed in three days of battle.
The move outraged Sikhs everywhere and led several months later to Indira Gandhi's assassination by two of her Sikh bodyguards.