Jhargram, West Bengal: Maoist insurgents were blamed for a train accident in West Bengal that killed 73 people and injured at least 250. The death toll is expected to rise.

The engine and 13 coaches of the Mumbai-bound Howrah-Kurla Jnaneswari Express jumped tracks and hit a goods train coming from the opposite direction at around 1.30am on Friday.

Chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee said Maoist rebels were behind the accident, which took place in the Jhargram area of West Bengal’s West Midnapore district, a stronghold of the insurgents.

Some 100 clips that fasten railway tracks with concrete sleepers were found missing at the accident site. The Maoists had removed them, the state government said.

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The accident took place a few kilometres from the Sardiya station, where the Maoists had in October laid siege to a Bhubaneswar-New Delhi Rajdhani Express for some eight hours to enforce a strike.

The death toll in Friday’s accident could approach 100, West Midnapore’s district magistrate N.S. Nigam said. Many among the 250 people hurt were battling life-threatening injuries in hospitals in Kolkata and Kharagpur, the district headquarters.

More dead bodies could be found inside the mangled coaches, which have yet not been removed from the tracks, district officials said.

Fatal run: Rescue workers and police gather at the scene of the Mumbai-bound Howrah-Kurla Jnaneswari Express train crash in West Bengal. Indranil Bhoumik/Mint

“A few days ago, we had received a report from the Intelligence Branch saying that the Maoists were up to something big ahead of the election," a state home department official said, requesting anonymity.

Though in the past such intelligence reports have been shared with the railways, this time the state chose to keep it to itself because the “inputs were largely election-related", the official added.

The state police claimed that they had recovered Maoist posters from the accident site. Communist Party of India (Maoist) leaders could not be contacted, but the People’s Committee against Police Atrocities—a local tribal group in West Midnapore backed by the Maoists—denied links with Friday’s incident.

Railway minister Mamata Banerjee said that the derailment was caused by an explosion, but her claim was dismissed by disaster management officials working at the accident site.

There are no indications of a blast; there’s no crater, and even the pebbles on the track weren’t flung around, they said.

In New Delhi, home minister P. Chidambaram said in a statement that the derailment “appears to be a case of sabotage where a portion of the railway track was removed, (but) whether explosives were used is not yet clear".

Toll may rise: More dead bodies could be found inside the mangled coaches, district officials say. Indranil Bhoumik/Mint

“Half an hour is long enough to remove the Pandrol clips," said A.P. Mishra, general manager of South Eastern Railway.

There was a sharp jerk as the driver braked, and then some of the coaches overturned, a survivor told PTI news agency. Soon they heard a sound of a crash as the goods train rammed into the overturned coaches. Four wagons of the goods train jumped the rails.

“We were sleeping when suddenly we were thrown around," Jagabandhu Sardar, a survivor, told PTI. “All of us managed to come out through the emergency window."

Sardar was travelling in one of the worst affected coaches.

Asked how the railways was planning to cope with such attacks, Banerjee said, “Could we stop running trains through Maoist strongholds?"

Maoist rebels have attacked trains at least 65 times in the past one year, according to PTI. Trains had become a soft target for the Maoists, Banerjee had said in Parliament last month.

The latest attack, the worst on trains in eight years, led the South Eastern Railway to decide that passenger trains wouldn’t ply in Maoist-affected areas in eastern India late at night for some time.

Maoists rebels operate in 11 of India’s 28 states and have killed more than 7,500 people since 1998, according to Bloomberg news agency. They recently blew up a passenger bus in Dantewada in Chhattisgarh, killing 36 people.

Prime minister Manmohan Singh has described the Maoists as the single biggest challenge to internal security.

Banerjee, who has been under attack from the Communist Party of India (Marxist) for being soft on the Maoists, said law and order was the state’s responsibility.

After Friday’s incident, she is likely to face more attacks both in West Bengal and in Delhi for her position on the Maoist insurgents.

The railway minister announced a compensation of Rs5 lakh each for the families of the deceased, and Rs1 lakh each for those injured in the accident.

The state government said it would pay Rs3 lakh each to the families of those killed in the accident and pick up the tab for treatment of the injured.