Police in India have arrested 23 people over the lynching of five men suspected of being members of a gang of child kidnappers, amid a series of deadly mob attacks fuelled by social media rumours.
Police spokesman M Ramkumar said five men were bludgeoned to death on Sunday in a remote mountainous village in Maharashtra state.
Villagers attacked the men when one of them tried to speak to a child at a weekly market, Mr Rajkumar said. "The mob was merciless," he added.
He said police formed five teams to catch the attackers, and had so far arrested 23 of 40 people accused of participating in the mob violence.
Mob lynching hysteria continues: Five persons were killed in Maharashtra’s #Dhule district on Sunday by villagers, who suspected that they were part of a gang of child lifters. pic.twitter.com/dPTGQKOf5l— Irony UnPlugged (@Irony_UnPlugged) July 1, 2018
He said that for days the village had been abuzz with rumours 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 centre 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 two-year-old child, when a mob of thousands attacked them on the suspicion of being child abductors in another town in Maharashtra state.
Police said they used canes to disperse the violent mob.
Maharashtra's chief minister, Devendra Fadnavis, said "stern action will be taken against rumour mongers".
The state's junior home minister, Deepak Kesarkar, appealed to the public not to believe rumours 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 said there was no truth to the rumours, the deadly and brutal attacks, often captured on mobile phones and shared on social media, have spread across Indian states.
At least 20 people have been killed in such attacks since early May, and dozens more have been injured.