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SANGRAMPUR (W BENGAL): Toxic liquor has claimed 143 lives in Bengal, the toll trebling overnight on Wednesday as daily wagers who made up most of the victims died unattended in the late hours. The deaths enraged villagers of Sangrampur in South 24-Parganas district and thousands of people, from teenagers to 70- ear-olds, ransacked one hooch den after another and torched the houses of hooch sellers. Ten people were arrested in connection with the hooch trade, but Khoda Badshah (lame king), the don of the local liquor mafia, was on the run. The victims had all drunk from the same stock - possibly laced with toxic methanol - sold at several vends.

Chief minister Mamata Banerjee ordered a police probe as she tried to steady her government that has been grappling with one disaster after another. "I don't want to do politics with this tragedy. Let all parties come together and find a way," Mamata said, calling an all-party meet on Monday. She hinted at "patronage by the previous ruling party" but added that illicit liquor was a statewide problem. "If hooch sellers turn to legal businesses, like a tea stall or fruit shop, the state will help them," she said.

As the bodies of the hooch victims were brought to the village of Sangrampur in South 24-Parganas, tempers flared andlocalsdirectedtheir anger as much at the police for failing to rein in the illegal trade. A police camp near the Sangrampur railway station was attacked and cops fled as the mob went on the rampage. "There's a policeman at the local outpost who would collect money regularly. This is why the policeturned a blindeyeto the spurious liquor outlets, which are just across the road," said Karim Gazi, a vegetable vendor. Gazi saw several neighbours dying after consuming hooch,known locally ascholai andsoldin polythene packsfor as low as Rs 10, on Wednesday morning.

The victims were mostly poor vendors who sold fish and vegetables and relativessaid many diedfor lackof medical attention. More than 1,000 men and women from the affected areas of Sangrampur, armed with rods, brought down the hooch shacks. The first shack was of Shiekh Yasin near the station. The houses of Khairul Bibi and Ayan Ali, both hooch sellers,were ransacked andseveral people were injured. Locals said that time was lost arranging for vanstoferry patients to Diamond Harbour and Kolkata. "Few had the money to pay for a van-rickshaw. Many victims died at home, without treatment," said Giasuddin Mollah.

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