Stampede kills 19 pilgrims in ancient Indian city

NEW DELHI, Oct 15 (Reuters) - At least 19 people died in a stampede in the ancient northern Indian city of Varanasi on Saturday, officials said.

Panic spread as hundreds of Hindu pilgrims tried to cross a bridge to a sacred site in one of the world's oldest inhabited cities, at the heart of the constituency of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

"Rumors about the bridge collapse led to chaos after a man fell down in a crowd," said police officer Javeed Ahmad.

Millions of Hindus go to Varanasi every year to pray and wash away their sins by taking a dip in the sacred river Ganges.

Photos from the aftermath of the stampede:

9 PHOTOS
Stampede kills at least 19 pilgrims in India
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Stampede kills at least 19 pilgrims in India
An Indian woman injured in a deadly stampede is treated at the Lal Bhahadur Shastri Hospital in Varanasi on October 15, 2016. A stampede at a religious gathering in northern India killed at least 19 people October 15 as thousands of devotees of a controversial guru tried to cross a bridge at once, police said. The followers of Jai Gurudev, a leader of a local religious sect, had gathered on the outskirts of Varanasi, a Hindu holy town on the banks of river Ganges in Uttar Pradesh state, when the deadly stampede broke out. / AFP / SANJAY KANOJIA (Photo credit should read SANJAY KANOJIA/AFP/Getty Images)
Indian bystanders and attendees react near the scene of a stampede in Varanasi on October 15, 2016. A stampede at a religious gathering in northern India killed at least 19 people October 15 as thousands of devotees of a controversial guru tried to cross a bridge at once, police said. The followers of Jai Gurudev, a leader of a local religious sect, had gathered on the outskirts of Varanasi, a Hindu holy town on the banks of river Ganges in Uttar Pradesh state, when the deadly stampede broke out. / AFP / STR (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)
Indian bystanders gather near the scene of a stampede in Varanasi on October 15, 2016. A stampede at a religious gathering in northern India killed at least 19 people October 15 as thousands of devotees of a controversial guru tried to cross a bridge at once, police said. The followers of Jai Gurudev, a leader of a local religious sect, had gathered on the outskirts of Varanasi, a Hindu holy town on the banks of river Ganges in Uttar Pradesh state, when the deadly stampede broke out. / AFP / STR (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)
Indian bystanders clear shoes from the roadside following a fatal stampede in Varanasi on October 15, 2016. A stampede at a religious gathering in northern India killed at least 19 people October 15 as thousands of devotees of a controversial guru tried to cross a bridge at once, police said. The followers of Jai Gurudev, a leader of a local religious sect, had gathered on the outskirts of Varanasi, a Hindu holy town on the banks of river Ganges in Uttar Pradesh state, when the deadly stampede broke out. / AFP / STR (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)
An injured woman is treated at the BHU trauma centre in Varanasi on October 15, 2016. A stampede at a religious gathering in northern India killed at least 19 people October 15 as thousands of devotees of a controversial guru tried to cross a bridge at once, police said. The followers of Jai Gurudev, a leader of a local religious sect, had gathered on the outskirts of Varanasi, a Hindu holy town on the banks of river Ganges in Uttar Pradesh state, when the deadly stampede broke out. / AFP / SANJAY KANOJIA (Photo credit should read SANJAY KANOJIA/AFP/Getty Images)
An injured Indian woman eats food distributed by the hospital administration at the Lal Bhahadur Shastri hospital Ramnagar Varanasi following a fatal stampede in Varanasi on October 15, 2016. A stampede at a religious gathering in northern India killed at least 19 people October 15 as thousands of devotees of a controversial guru tried to cross a bridge at once, police said. The followers of Jai Gurudev, a leader of a local religious sect, had gathered on the outskirts of Varanasi, a Hindu holy town on the banks of river Ganges in Uttar Pradesh state, when the deadly stampede broke out. / AFP / SANJAY KANOJIA (Photo credit should read SANJAY KANOJIA/AFP/Getty Images)
Indian followers of the late spiritual leader Jai Gurudev cross the Raj Ghat bridge to attend a Sabha (Summit) a day after a fatal stampede, in Varanasi on October 16, 2016. A stampede at a religious gathering in northern India killed at least 24 people October 15, 2016 as thousands of devotees of a controversial guru tried to cross a bridge at once, police said. / AFP / SANJAY KANOJIA (Photo credit should read SANJAY KANOJIA/AFP/Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - Indian followers of the late spiritual leader Jai Gurudev cross the Raj Ghat bridge to attend a Sabha (Summit) a day after a fatal stampede, in Varanasi on October 16, 2016. A stampede at a religious gathering in northern India killed at least 24 people October 15, 2016 as thousands of devotees of a controversial guru tried to cross a bridge at once, police said. / AFP / SANJAY KANOJIA (Photo credit should read SANJAY KANOJIA/AFP/Getty Images)
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Modi, who was hosting a meeting of BRICS nations in Goa, expressed his condolences to the victims' families and promised help.

Two police officers at the scene of the stampede said about 50 people were injured and that officials were now struggling to deter pilgrims from entering a religious site near the bridge.

"We are deploying over 100 police officers to control the crowd. People are in a state of panic," said Ravi Tyagi, a police officer.

Ravindra Sharma, who was injured in the stampede, said his teenage daughter was missing and the authorities were unable to trace her.

"We came to seek the blessings of our god, only god can help me find her," he said.

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