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NEW DELHI (AP) — Police in western India said Monday that they have arrested 23 people who took part in the weekend lynching of five men suspected of being members of a gang of child kidnappers, as deadly mob attacks fueled by social media rumors continues around the country.
Police officer M. Ramkumar said five men were bludgeoned to death on Sunday in a remote, mountainous village in Maharashtra state.
Villagers pounced on the men when one of them tried to speak to a child at a weekly market, Rajkumar said. "The mob was merciless," he said.
Rajkumar said police formed five teams to nab the culprits, and had so far arrested 23 of 40 people accused of participating in the mob violence.
He said that for days the village had been abuzz with rumors spread through WhatsApp that a gang of child kidnappers was roaming there.
New Delhi Television reported that the five men were from a nomadic community and had gone to a house to ask for food before trying to speak to a child. It also showed a community center still splashed with blood where the men were locked up before they were brutally killed with sticks, rods and stones, as well as punches.
Indian TV channels also reported that most homes were locked and lanes deserted in the village on Monday as most villagers fled to escape a police crackdown.
In a separate incident, police said they rescued five family members, including a 2-year-old child, when a mob of thousands attacked them on the suspicion of being child abductors in a town, also in Maharashtra state, early Monday.
Police said they used canes to disperse the violent mob.
Maharashtra's chief minister, Devendra Fadnavis, said "stern action will be taken against rumor mongers."
The state's junior home minister, Deepak Kesarkar, appealed to the public not to believe rumors circulated over social media. "No one should take the law in their hands," he told reporters.
India has seen a string of mob attacks in the past few months ignited by messages circulated through social media that child-abduction gangs were active in villages and towns.
Although authorities clarified that there was no truth to the rumors, the deadly and brutal attacks, often captured on cellphones and shared on social media, have spread across Indian states.
At least 20 people have been killed in such brutal attacks since early May, and dozens more have been injured.
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