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RAIPUR, India (Reuters) - Indian police began a probe on Monday into reports that villagers in a tribal area of central India beat 50 women with sticks after accusing them of witchcraft, and cut off their hair.
The villagers acted on the advice of a local spiritual man who said the assault would protect them from evil spirits, in a forest in a poor district of Chhattisgarh state, 400km (250 miles) from the capital Raipur, police said.
Dozens of women are killed every year on suspicion of being witches or witch doctors in India, where superstition is widespread, especially in rural areas that lack an effective schooling system.
While there are few killings in Chhattisgarh, more than 100 women are tortured, paraded naked or harassed in the state every year, officials say.
"Police have begun a probe and interrogated dozens of villagers who hosted a nine-day purification ceremony where they forcibly cut the hair of about 50 women branding them witches and also beat them up publicly," Radheshyam Nayak, a senior state police officer, told Reuters.
The state passed a Witchcraft (Prevention) Act in 2005 to counter a rise in witchhunts, handing out jail terms of up to five years for offenders, though many cases are still reported.
Chhattisgarh's Chief Minister Raman Singh called the latest assault "inhuman, unfortunate and shameful" and asked the state's police chief to investigate the case, a statement said.
Editing by Matthias Williams and Valerie Lee