A bomb attack on a bus carrying holidaying soldiers and their families killed 33 people and wounded 10 in Indian-controlled Kashmir today, just hours before the country’s new government began work, officials said.
The attack by suspected Islamic separatists is one of the worst in recent history and is the first security test for newly installed Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who has pledged to make the Kashmir crisis and relations with rival Pakistan main priorities of his minority government.
After his cabinet passed a resolution condemning the attack, Singh said it was “yet another indication that terrorism continues to pose a grave threat to our nation’s integrity and progress”.
“While we continue to seek peaceful resolutions to all outstanding problems, there can be no compromise on our solemn resolve to deal with the menace of terrorism with firm determination,” he said in a statement.
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 on the bus. Several of the wounded died in hospitals, and by Sunday evening, the fatalities included 18 soldiers, six women, five male relatives and four children.
Authorities had earlier said 12 women and two children were among the dead.
“The bodies were charred beyond recognition, so it took time to identify them. It became difficult to even identify our own soldiers,” said K. Srinivasan, the deputy inspector-general of the BSF in the region.
The bomb was planted under a small bridge near the village of Lower Munda, 55 miles south of Srinagar, Jammu-Kashmir’s summer capital, said Sharma. 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.
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.
It wasn’t clear whether the attack was timed to coincide with the announcement of Singh’s cabinet line-up expected later today.
The cabinet resolution also vowed to find ways to compensate the victims’ families.
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.