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Dozens Killed in India Blasts

Apparently coordinated attacks rip through two bustling markets and a bus in New Delhi. They come on the eve of a Hindu holiday.

October 30, 2005|Henry Chu | Times Staff Writer

NEW DELHI — A series of bomb blasts shook the heart of the Indian capital Saturday evening, killing more than 50 people in crowded marketplaces and a public bus in an apparent coordinated terrorist attack on the eve of a national Hindu holiday.

Three explosions went off within minutes of one another starting about 5:30 p.m., during peak shopping hours. The first hit a busy market across from the central railway station, in an area popular with backpacking tourists. It was closely followed by two more blasts, one aboard a bus in the southeastern part of the city and another -- the most lethal of the three -- in a south Delhi marketplace, where at least 36 people died. Scores more were injured.

Officials refused to speculate on who orchestrated the bombings, but public suspicion immediately fell on Muslim separatist groups based in the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir.

The last major strike by Kashmiri militants on New Delhi occurred nearly four years ago. The deadly assault on Parliament pushed India and Pakistan, both nuclear powers, to the brink of war. India has accused its neighbor of covertly backing extremists in their violent campaign to unite all of Kashmir with Pakistan or to create an independent state.

Since then, the two rivals have been gradually trying to negotiate a settlement over Kashmir. In April, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf declared the peace process "irreversible." Early today, the two nations agreed to open their militarized, de facto border in Kashmir to aid victims of the Oct. 8 earthquake centered in the region.

Indian authorities say five or six major militant Muslim organizations still are based in mountainous Kashmir, as well as several smaller splinter groups. In addition, dozens of other militant organizations of various stripes operate throughout India.

"It's something that has been planned -- that is quite obvious," Sheila Dikshit, chief minister of Delhi state, said of the attacks. "But it's far too early to say anything [about] who it is who was behind it."

Indian television reported late Saturday that 10 people had been detained.

Singh cut short a visit to Calcutta to rush back to the capital after the bombings.

"I condemn the cynical and premeditated attacks on innocent people. These are dastardly acts of terrorism aimed at the people of our country," Singh said. "We are resolute in our commitment to fighting terror in all forms."

In Islamabad, Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Tasnim Aslam called the attack "a criminal act of terrorism. The people and government of Pakistan are shocked at this barbaric act and express deep sympathy with the families of the victims."

Both India and Pakistan are struggling to care for victims of the catastrophic earthquake, and talks on coordinating the relief effort have raised hope that peace talks might receive a boost.

Negotiations to open crossings along the cease-fire line began in Islamabad on Saturday and ended early today with an agreement to establish passages at several points along the Line of Control.

Analysts worry that the bombings could harden relations between the two sides if Muslim militants believed to enjoy Pakistan's support are deemed responsible.

The symbolism of the bomb blasts' timing seemed clear, coming three days before the Hindu festival of Diwali, a time when New Delhi's congested streets and bustling markets are even more packed than usual. Residents string their homes with colored lights and set off firecrackers in the evenings in the run-up to the holiday. Later this week, Muslims celebrate Eid al-Fitr, marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan.

As dusk fell Saturday, the open-air Paharganj market was chockablock with last-minute shoppers buying vegetables and stocking up for Diwali at the many stores and sidewalk stalls. About 5:30 p.m., a thunderous explosion shattered the air of cheerful activity.

"I thought the building was collapsing, so I ran out into the middle of the street," said shopkeeper Harvinder Singh, 34. "There was smoke all around. Initially I thought there had been a short circuit on the electricity pole. But then I saw the hands of children and young women raining down from the sky."

Debris, broken glass and merchandise lay strewn in the narrow streets. Signboards were blackened. Some frantic bystanders fled, while others swiftly cleared off wooden carts to use as makeshift stretchers to wheel away the injured.

The market, across from the entrance to Delhi's main train station, is home to a passel of budget hostels frequented by backpackers. Preliminary reports indicated that no foreigners were among those killed in any of the blasts. The exact number of dead in each of the explosions remained unclear early today.

Police Commissioner K.K. Paul said the Paharganj bomb might have been planted on a motorcycle or scooter in the market square.

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