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18 are dead after protesters, police clash in 2 India states

PATNA, India — Security forces battled protesters armed with guns and grenades in two northern Indian states, leaving 18 people dead. Soldiers were patrolling the areas on Saturday to prevent further riots.

The clashes in the Siwan district of Bihar state and the industrial city of Kanpur in neighboring Uttar Pradesh were unrelated, officials said.

In Siwan, supporters of a federal lawmaker accused of murder and extortion clashed on Friday with police in a gunbattle that raged for hours.

Nine Muslim rioters and two policeman were killed, said Chief Secretary Mukund Prasad, the state's top bureaucrat, raising the death toll from six.

The rioters were supporters of Shahabuddin, who is accused in 29 cases of murder, extortion and kidnapping but has not been convicted. Shahabuddin, who uses only one name, initially led his supporters in the clash, but later fled, police said.

In Kanpur, three Muslim protesters and a district official were killed after reports that a copy of Quran, the Islamic holy book, was burned by Hindu right-wing activists. Dozens of people were injured, said police superintendent G.P. Sharma.

The violence, which started on Friday, continued Saturday as Muslim mobs damaged two Hindu temples, police said. One of the men injured in Friday's clashes died early Saturday and two others were killed in fresh fighting later in the day, said Home Secretary Naresh Dayal.

Two members of the Hindu extremist group Bajrang Dal allegedly burned the Quran on March 5 to protest the destruction of ancient statues of Buddha in Afghanistan, which is run by the fundamentalist Muslim Taliban.

The violence started during a rally of the fundamentalist Student Islamic Movement of India over the alleged burning of the Quran.

The procession turned violent after the activists tried to burn an effigy of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and started throwing bricks at police cars. When the mob tried to burn police cars, police opened fire. The protesters then attacked police posts in other parts of the city.

"They have sophisticated arms which were used yesterday to fire at police. The situation is grim," Sharma said.

A curfew was imposed in several neighborhoods in Kanpur and authorities, Sharma said.

Uttar Pradesh and Bihar are notorious for clashes between upper and lower Hindu castes and tensions between Hindus and Muslims. Both states have witnessed fierce religious riots in the past.