Suspected Islamic militants blew up a paramilitary bus in the Indian-controlled portion of Kashmir today, killing at least 28 people and wounding 15 others, less than 24 hours after India swore in its new prime minister.
The bloody attack is one of the worst in recent times and is the first security test for new leader Manmohan Singh who has pledged to make the Kashmir crisis and relations with rival Pakistan the main priorities of his minority government.
The powerful explosion on the road connecting Srinagar and Jammu in India’s Jammu-Kashmir state occurred when a Border Security Force convoy was passing by, said Neeraj Sharma, a spokesman for the paramilitary force.
The victims included BSF soldiers and their family members, Sharma said.
There were about 40 people in the bus and 28 of them, including 12 women and two children, died at the scene of the blast, while the rest were critically wounded, he said.
Sharma said the bomb was planted under a small bridge near the village of Lower Munda, 55 miles south of Srinagar, Jammu-Kashmir’s summer capital. As the bomb went off, the fuel tank of the bus caught fire, he said, blaming the attack on separatist Islamic guerrillas.
A police officer said a civilian vehicle was also hit by the blast and three people travelling in it were wounded.
A local news agency said the Hezb-ul Mujahedeen militant group took responsibility for the attack in a telephone call to its office in Srinagar. The unidentified caller did not give any reason behind the attack, the agency said.
Military helicopters were rushed to the area to evacuate the victims. The blast halted traffic on the Jammu-Srinagar highway – the only road that links Kashmir with the rest of the country.
Security officials in Kashmir declined to comment if the attack was linked to formation of a new government in New Delhi. Prime Minister Singh is expected to announce the lineup of his cabinet later today.
Hezb-ul Mujahedeen is the largest among more than a dozen Islamic groups which have been fighting security forces in the Indian-controlled portion of Kashmir for the region’s independence or its merger with mostly Muslim Pakistan.
The guerrillas have vowed to continue their attacks, despite the resumption of talks between India and Pakistan to resolve their differences over Kashmir – the Himalayan region both claim in its entirety.
The South Asian nuclear rivals have fought two wars over Kashmir. India accuses Pakistan of training, arming and funding the Islamic rebels, a charge denied by Islamabad.
The 14-year insurgency in India’s only Muslim-majority state has claimed more than 65,000 lives.