Police tear gas New Delhi gang-rape protesters

Indian police on Saturday tear-gassed, baton-charged and fired water cannon at demonstrators on the sixth and most violent day of protests against the brutal gang-rape of a student last weekend.

Thousands of protesters, most of them college students, rallied at the India Gate monument in the heart of the Indian capital and then surged toward the sprawling presidential palace.

Angry protesters shouting "We want justice" called for better safety for women across the country as police struggled to control the crowd, while the 23-year-old victim was still battling for her life in a New Delhi hospital.

Some carried banners that read: "Hang them (the rapists) now," with the home minister later suggesting that India may consider the death penalty for rapists.

Six drunk men were joyriding in a bus when they picked up the physiotherapy student and her 28-year-old male companion. They took turns raping her before throwing the pair off the speeding vehicle.

During her ordeal the victim suffered serious intestinal injuries from being beaten with an iron rod.

Five of the suspects were arrested soon after the crime and a sixth was caught Friday.

The attack was the latest in a series of violent assaults on women in the capital that have triggered demands for stricter laws and swifter prosecutions.

On Saturday, riot police were called in and routes leading to the demonstration site were cordoned off to contain the protests, in which some of the demonstrators were seen throwing stones.

Clashes erupted when a group in the crowd tried to break through police barricades and march towards the president's house.

Around 20 students were injured in the clashes and were taken to hospital in the capital, the Press Trust of India reported.

Doctors at the hospital where the rape victim was being treated said she was in a critical but stable condition and had been removed from a ventilator.

"She is doing much better than yesterday. She took sips of water and apple juice today," B.D. Athani, medical superintendent of Safdarjung Hospital, told reporters.

The victim is "very brave, positive and optimistic", said another doctor, Abhilasha Yadav.

As outrage intensified over last Sunday's attack the government appealed for calm.

"This is not a way to protest. Trying to storm buildings and breaking barricades is not a way to start a dialogue," junior home minister R.P.N. Singh told India's CNN-IBN television network.

"The government is trying to do whatever it can to take measures and make sure women are safe in the country."

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh weighed in, telling the home minister to ensure a feeling of security among Delhi residents.

The government said Friday it would press for life sentences for the woman's six attackers and promised stricter policing. They also promised to pay the victim's medical bills.

Ravi Shankar Prasad, spokesman for the main national opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), said New Delhi "is becoming the rape capital" of India.

The number of rape cases in New Delhi has risen 17 percent to 661 this year from a year ago, according to government figures, the highest number among India's big cities.

Experts say a combination of abusive sexual behaviour, a scant fear of the law and India's creaky judicial system encourage such attacks in the bustling city of 19 million people.

BJP opposition leader Sushma Swaraj has demanded that rapists receive the death penalty.

Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde said the Congress-led government would look at "enhanced punishment in the rarest of rare rape cases" -- a reference to capital punishment.

The current maximum penalty for rape is life imprisonment and "it (the death penalty) will have to be discussed in detail," Shinde told a news conference Saturday.

India has executed two people since 2004 -- one of whom was Mohammed Kasab, the sole surviving gunman from the 2008 Mumbai attacks.

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