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India reels as siege of Sikhs' holiest shrine comes to an end

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It was one of the worst 24-hour periods in the history of modern India. At least 250 Sikh extremists and 60 Army officers and men had died, and 450 suspected militants had been arrested inside Sikhdom's holiest shrine. The Army had expected to finish the operation in 48 hours. It took five days.

Many are asking in New Delhi why so many had to die. Reliable sources suspect the Army was operating under ''shoot-to-kill orders'' and wanted few to come out alive.

Among those who did not come out alive was Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, the militant Sikh leader. His body was found in Amritsar's Golden Temple complex Thursday, following a 24-hour gun battle between his followers and the Indian Army's special paramilitary force.

Two of his key lieutenants were also found. With rigid censorship still imposed, it was impossible to know if they had been killed by the Gurkha assault forces, which stormed the temple complex at dawn Wednesday - or, if, as they had so long threatened, they had committed suicide, ensuring martyrdom for themselves as warriors, and for their crusade for more Sikh autonomy.

As the news flashed throughout India, there were mixed reactions of relief, revenge, and shock. Scores of Sikhs attempted to march to Amritsar from New Delhi, and from villages in the Punjab, to recover Sant Bhindranwale's body and perform last rites. They were immediately arrested by the Army or the police, under special regulations now in force in most parts of India, which prevent marches or public assemblage.

As of dawn Thursday, all firing had stopped around the temple complex, the official government briefer said, and the Army's ''operation Punjab'' had come to a bloody end.

What really happened in Amritsar is the quintessential question which will take some time to answer. For five days the Punjab has been cut off from the rest of the world. There is a 24-hour curfew. All telephone and telex lines are cut. No foreigners are permitted entry, and on Tuesday, all Indian journalists were expelled. There are no newspapers, no trains, no buses - not even a bullock cart can move.

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