NEW DELHI - Villagers in a rural part of eastern India have killed five women whom they accused of practising witchcraft, police said Saturday.
Police in eastern Jharkhand state said a group of assailants dragged the women out of their huts and beat them to death at around midnight Friday in Kanjia village, some 40 kilometres (25 miles) from state capital Ranchi.
"A group (of villagers) dragged the women out and beat them to death with sticks, accusing them of practising witchcraft," Ranchi deputy police chief Arun Kumar Singh told AFP by phone.
Singh added that 24 villagers have been arrested over the killings of the women, who were mostly aged between 45 and 50.
Jharkhand police spokesman S.N. Pradhan said the villagers also used stones and knives after blaming the five women for bringing illness, poor crops and bad luck on the village through witchcraft.
"It looks like the village held a grudge against these women for a very long time, holding them responsible for... various misfortunes," Pradhan told AFP.
"The whole village is ganging up against the police now saying they all killed the women," he said, adding that an investigation was underway.
Experts say belief in witchcraft and the occult remains widespread in some impoverished and remote areas in India, where women are sometimes accused of being witches to settle disputes or grievances.
In some cases women are stripped naked as punishment, burnt alive or driven from their homes and killed.
In July, machete-wielding villagers in the northeastern state of Assam dismembered and beheaded a 63-year-old woman after accusing her of being a witch and casting evil spells on her village.
According to India's National Crime Records Bureau, around 2,000 people, mostly women, were killed between 2000 and 2012 on suspicions of practising witchcraft.
Jharkhand accounted for 54 of 160 "witch hunt" murders in 2013, government data showed.
Some Indian states including Jharkhand have introduced special laws to try to curb crimes against people accused of witchcraft.
Jharkhand Chief Minister Raghubar Das condemned the latest killings in a statement on Saturday, urging society to "ponder over it".
"In the age of knowledge, this incident is sorrowful".