updated 10/10/2006 3:17:51 AM ET 2006-10-10T07:17:51

Thousands of people in eastern India have fled their homes in fear as elephants crash through villages looking for one of their herd, which fell into a ditch and drowned over the weekend, officials said Tuesday.

Residents of Banta in Jharkhand state gave the 17-year-old female elephant a quiet burial three days ago, but 14 marauding elephants have been raiding the village ever since.

“We have not slept for three days and the few of us left are lighting huge bonfires to keep the elephants at bay without success,” villager Sambhu Mahato told Reuters in Banta, 49 miles west of the state capital, Ranchi

The dead elephant had strayed out of nearby forests on Saturday, fell into an irrigation ditch and drowned.

Crops and homes have since been destroyed by the animals and thousands of farmers and their families from three villages have been forced to move in with friends or relatives living nearby or are being looked after by local officials.

“We have now formed a team of thirty people armed with crackers to try and chase away the elephants as they are out to avenge the death of their mate,” U.R. Biswas, Jharkhand’s leading forests official, said in Ranchi.

With forest cover dwindling in eastern India, elephants and other animals regularly leave their forest homes in search of food, triggering conflict with locals.

Copyright 2012 Thomson Reuters. Click for restrictions.

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