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Guerrillas Kill 33 in Kashmir Bus Bombing

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The attack is seen as an early test for India's new prime minister, who calls for both peaceful solutions and a firm resolve to fight terror.

May 24, 2004|Shankhadeep Choudhury and Paul Watson | Times Staff Writers

NEW DELHI — A day after India swore in its new prime minister, separatist Kashmiri militants set off a remote-controlled bomb that killed 33 people in a bus carrying Indian troops and their families going on vacation.

The bomb exploded with such force that it ripped apart the bus and engulfed it in flames, state police Inspector-General Rajendra Kumar said in a telephone interview after visiting the site.

"As a result, most of the victims were trapped inside and charred to death," he said.

Indian intelligence and police sources said more than 200 pounds of military-grade plastic explosives were hidden in a narrow culvert under the main highway through the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir.

The blast, which occurred just hours before Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh held his first Cabinet meeting, was the most deadly militant assault in two years, said Krishnaswamy Srinivasan, deputy inspector-general of the Border Security Force.

The attack was seen as an early test for Singh, who was sworn in as India's prime minister Saturday after a week of political turmoil that followed the victory of his Congress Party-led alliance.

"I have learned with the deepest sorrow about the latest cowardly act of terrorists in Jammu and Kashmir," Singh said in a statement. "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."

The dead included 14 Border Security Force paramilitary soldiers, six women, three children and some male relatives of the soldiers. The bus was among a heavily guarded military convoy of 10 vehicles heading to Srinagar, summer capital of India's Jammu and Kashmir state. The bus was in Lower Munda, about 60 miles away, when the bomb exploded under it.

Border Security Force sources, who spoke on condition they not be named, said up to 35 people may have been on the bus.

The confirmed death toll is the highest in a single attack since May 2002, when militants killed at least 34 people, including several women and children. The gunmen stormed a bus and a nearby army camp.

Amid the public outcry after that assault, former Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee massed several hundred thousand troops along the border with Pakistan and the Line of Control that divides Kashmir.

The two countries neared their fourth war but pulled back. At a summit in February, Vajpayee and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf agreed to start landmark peace talks, set to get underway soon.

Singh has said he is committed to seeking peace with Pakistan, which also has declared that it wants an end to the conflict. But so far, there is no sign that either side is willing to give up competing claims over Kashmir.

Musharraf recently warned that he would pull out of the peace talks if there wasn't significant progress toward settling the dispute by August, when the foreign ministers of India and Pakistan are scheduled to meet.

Despite a cease-fire between India's and Pakistan's conventional forces, a 14-year guerrilla insurgency still rages in Jammu and Kashmir. About five people die each day in the conflict.

The Hizbul Mujahedin, the largest militant group fighting Indian rule in the disputed territory, claimed responsibility for Sunday's attack. Indian forces say they have killed four of the guerrilla army's senior commanders in recent weeks.

They included the Hizbul Mujahedin's Srinagar operations chief Saiful Islam and military advisor Shakeel Ansari, Srinivasan said from Srinagar.

"We were getting indications that they would strike back," he said.

On Friday, India's army chief, Gen. N.C. Vij, said that between 3,000 and 3,500 militants were waiting in Pakistani-controlled territory to infiltrate Indian Kashmir.

Pakistani military spokesman Maj. Gen. Shaukat Sultan dismissed the claim as "totally ludicrous."

Musharraf repeatedly has promised to close down militant training camps in Pakistani-held territory and bring a permanent end to guerrilla infiltrations into Indian territory.

But Vij says there are about 90 militant training camps operating on Pakistan's side of the Line of Control, the 1972 cease-fire line that divides Kashmir.

Meanwhile, Singh announced his Cabinet ministers' portfolios late Sunday night. The top posts included economic reformist Palaniappan Chidambaram as finance minister. He was friendly to business when he held the same job from 1996 to 1998.

Pranab Mukherjee is the new defense minister, and Natwar Singh will head the Foreign Ministry.

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