Updated at 4:42 p.m. ET on 2019-02-14
Suspected militants rammed an explosive-laden vehicle into a police convoy on a busy highway in Indian Kashmir on Thursday, killing at least 40 soldiers and wounding more than two dozen others, authorities said, in the most powerful bombing to strike the disputed Himalayan region in years.
The militant group Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) claimed responsibility for what it described as a suicide bombing.
“It is the deadliest attack on security forces in decades,” Commandant Sanjay Sharma, public relations officer of the paramilitary Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), told BenarNews. “At least 42 men were killed and the casualty count may go up as some have been critically injured.”
A convoy of 70 vehicles carrying more than 2,500 security personnel was on the Srinagar-Jammu highway, around 25 km (15 miles) from the city of Srinagar, when the militants began targeting a bus, authorities said.
“It appears that the militants chased the bus up to a certain distance before ramming into it to inflict maximum casualties,” Sharma said. “It was a well-planned attack as the militants chose to target a single bus among a fleet of buses to inflict maximum damage.”
Photographs taken by BenarNews from the blast scene showed the twisted remnants of what looked like a vehicle amid scattered debris. Authorities said two buses were ripped apart.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who vowed during the 2014 electoral campaign to adopt a hardline approach to militancy in Kashmir, deplored the bombing.
“I strongly condemn this dastardly attack,” he tweeted. “The sacrifice of our brave security personnel shall not go in vain. The entire nation stands shoulder to shoulder with the families of the brave martyrs.”
An hour after the attack, a spokesman from the militant group JeM, which literally means “The Army of Muhammad,” claimed responsibility for what he called a suicide attack.
“Many vehicles were destroyed in the attack” the Srinagar-based news portal Global News Agency quoted JeM spokesman Muhammad Hassan as saying. “Our operative and driver Aadil Ahmad, alias Waqas, commando of Pulwama region, carried out the suicide attack.”
He did not say if Aadil was also killed in the attack. It was not immediately clear how many militants were aboard the explosive-laden car, security officials said.
A police officer who requested anonymity told BenarNews that the bomb inside the attack vehicle detonated as soon as the car rammed the bus.
The U.S. State Department issued a statement Thursday afternoon (Washington time) condemning the attack.
"The United States condemns in the strongest terms the terrorist attack today on an Indian Central Reserve Police Force convoy in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir," it said, adding the nation is "resolutely committed to working with the Indian government to combat terrorism in all its forms."
Massive searches launched
After the blast Indian security forces sounded an alert across the region, and authorities launched massive searches to track down the attackers, whose number was still unknown, officials said.
Meanwhile, in an unrelated incident on Wednesday, at least 22 students were wounded, a few of them critically, when a homemade bomb went off at a school in southern Kashmir’s Pulwama district, authorities said. Police said they did not know who was responsible.
Muslim-majority Kashmir, a scenic valley in the Himalayan Mountains, has grappled with a separatist insurgency that has killed more than 70,000 people since the late 1980s. The region is claimed in its entirety by both India and Pakistan, who have fought two wars over it, and whose territories are separated by a de facto border, the Line of Control (LoC).
In September 2016, four JeM militants stormed an army base in Uri town near the LoC in Baramulla district, killing at least 19 soldiers and wounding dozens in a pre-dawn attack. India responded by launching what it called “surgical strikes” in Pakistan that inflicted “significant casualties.” Indian newspapers reported the Pakistani casualty figures as between 35 and 50.
JeM, which aims to separate Kashmir and merge it into Pakistan, was founded by Mohammed Masood Azhar Alvi in 2000, according to the U.S. Department of the Treasury. In 2010, the department designated Ashar, 50, as a terrorist, alleging that he was also a former leader of another terrorist group, known as Harakat al Mujahadin or Harakat ul-Ansa.