India stampede kills 18 mourners of spiritual leader in Mumbai

MUMBAI - A stampede killed at least 18 people in India's financial hub Mumbai as a large crowd gathered to pay their last respects to a Muslim spiritual leader, police said.

More than 40 were also injured in the chaos that erupted shortly after midnight local time when the gates were shut to the residence of Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin, who died aged 102 Friday.

Burhanuddin, who was due to celebrate his 103rd birthday in a few weeks, died of a heart attack at his home, a spokesman said.

He was a leader of the Dawoodi Bohra community, a sect of Shiite Islam.

"Organisers had closed the gates. The crowd was so huge that people started suffocating, some fainted and then people began running and falling on each other in a panic," Mumbai police chief Satyapal Singh told reporters.

In reply to a question, Singh confirmed that 18 people died and admitted there was a lapse in crowd control as police and organisers had failed to anticipate the huge turnout of devotees.

Stampedes at public events in India are common as large numbers of people pack into congested areas.

Panic can spread quickly and, with few safety regulations in place, the result is often lethal.

Thousands adorned in white scarves and skullcaps gathered Saturday on the streets of Mumbai for the funeral procession of Burhanuddin, TV footage showed.

Narendra Modi, leader of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party who has been vilified for deadly anti-Muslim riots in his Gujarat state in 2002, called the incident "unfortunate" on Twitter.

"Stampede near Syedna Sahib's residence is very unfortunate. Condolences to families of those who lost their lives & prayers with the injured," Modi tweeted.

The spiritual leader, succeeded by his 70-year-old son Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin, led the Dawoodi Bohra community for nearly five decades.

Burhanuddin had succeeded his father Syedna Taher Saifuddin in 1965.

Burhanuddin was honoured with the highest civilian titles such as the Star of Jordan and Order of the Nile by the governments of Jordan and Egypt.

The latest disaster comes just months after some 115 devotees were crushed to death or drowned on a bridge near a Hindu temple in October when crowds panicked on rumours that the bridge was going to collapse in the central state of Madhya Pradesh.

In 2006, another stampede outside the same temple killed 50 people as they crossed a river, prompting authorities to build the bridge.

India has a long history of deadly stampedes at religious festivals, with at least 36 people trampled to death last February as pilgrims headed home from the Kumbh Mela religious festival on the banks of the river Ganges.

Some 102 Hindu devotees were killed in a stampede in January 2011 in the state of Kerala, while 224 pilgrims died in September 2008 as thousands of worshippers rushed to reach a 15th-century hill-top temple in Jodhpur.