By AIJAZ HUSSAIN
SRINAGAR, India (AP) — At least 33 soldiers were killed and about 20 others wounded Thursday in a car bomb attack on a paramilitary convoy along a key highway in Indian-controlled Kashmir, security officials said. It was one of the deadliest car bombings in the disputed region’s history.
Officials said a local Kashmiri militant rammed an explosive-laden van into the convoy, targeting a bus carrying at least 35 soldiers. Senior police officer Muneer Ahmed Khan said the attack occurred as the convoy reached southern Lethpora town on the outskirts of the main city of Srinagar. He said the bus was destroyed and at least five other vehicles were damaged by the blast.
Sanjay Sharma, a spokesman for India’s paramilitary Central Reserve Police Force, said many of the injured were in critical condition. “The blast was so powerful that one cannot recognize whether the vehicle was a bus or a truck. Just pieces of mangled steel remain of the vehicle,” he said.
Videos circulated by local news groups showed ambulances rushing to the site and people running as smoke billowed from the damaged vehicles. Debris and body parts littered the road. Authorities closed the highway following the blast. Police officer Khan said soldiers and counterinsurgency police reinforcements were deployed in the area and were conducting searches.
The Greater Kashmir newspaper reported that militant group Jaish-e-Mohammed claimed responsibility for the attack. A pre-recorded nine-minute video, circulated on social media sites, showed the purported attacker in combat clothes and surrounded by guns and grenades. Later Thursday, thousands of people, chanting slogans such “Go India, go back,” marched to the militant’s village in solidarity.
Government forces tried to stop the people from gathering, leading to clashes as groups of young people hurled stones at the troops, who fired tear gas. No injuries were immediately reported there. Kashmir Gov. Satya Pal Malik accused Pakistan of being behind the attack. “Visibly it seems to be guided from across the border as Jaish-e-Mohammed has claimed responsibility,” Malik said in a statement. “Such actions will not deter the resolve of our security forces … we will finish these inimical forces to the last.”
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi condemned the attack in a tweet Thursday evening. “I strongly condemn this dastardly attack. The sacrifices of our brave security personnel shall not go in vain,” he said. The Pakistan Foreign Ministry in a statement in Islamabad said the attack in Pulwama “is a matter of grave concern.” “We have always condemned acts of violence anywhere in the world,” the statement said. “We strongly reject any insinuation by elements in the Indian media and government that seek to link the attack to Pakistan without investigations.”
Kashmir experienced many car bombings from 2000 through 2005 which inflicted high casualties on Indian troops. The attacks forced Indian authorities to procure bombproof armored vehicles for soldiers operating in Kashmir. Indian soldiers are ubiquitous in Kashmir and local residents make little secret of their fury toward their presence in the Himalayan region.
India and Pakistan each claim the divided territory of Kashmir in its entirety. Rebels have been fighting Indian control since 1989. Most Kashmiris support the rebels’ demand that the territory be united either under Pakistani rule or as an independent country, while also participating in civilian street protests against Indian control.
Kashmir has experienced renewed rebel attacks and repeated public protests against Indian rule in the past few years as a new generation of Kashmiri rebels, especially in the southern parts of the region, has revived the militancy and challenged New Delhi’s rule with guns and social media.
The anti-India unrest grew especially after a popular rebel leader was killed in 2016. The Indian government responded with stepped up anti-rebel operations, leading to more protests. Kashmiris have tried to protect rebels by hurling stones and abuse at Indian troops entering their villages in pursuit of militants. Last year’s death toll was the highest since 2009 in the Muslim-majority Kashmir, including at least 260 militants, 160 civilians and 150 government forces.
About 70,000 people have been killed in the uprising and the ensuing Indian crackdown since 1989.