At least 44 killed in India bus crash: Police

NEW DELHI (AFP) - A fierce blaze on a bus triggered by an exploding fuel tank killed at least 44 passengers in southern India early on Wednesday, police said.

The fire broke out after the bus crashed into a central reservation on a highway between the cities of Bangalore and Hyderabad around 5.00am local time, said local police spokesman Venkateshwarlu.

"The number of dead, which includes children, is 44," said Mr Venkateshwarlu, who uses only one name.

Out of 49 people on the bus, five, including the driver and the bus cleaner, broke windows and escaped before the flames engulfed the vehicle, killing the rest, police said.

"The driver and the cleaner tried to run, but the police caught them and they are now in our custody for questioning," said Mr Venkateshwarlu, adding that the three others were taken to a local hospital.

A total of 131,834 people died in road accidents in India in 2011, according to the government's National Crime Records Bureau, which works out at 15 an hour.

Bad roads, speeding vehicles and poor driving are among the contributing factors, and bus crashes with a double-digit death toll are far from rare.

In May, at least 33 people died when an overcrowded bus skidded off a road into a fast-flowing river in the northern state of Himachal Pradesh.

The World Health Organisation's global status report on road safety 2013 found that eight per cent of India's road user deaths were bus drivers or passengers while 32 per cent were riders of motorbikes or three-wheelers.