Authorities in Indian Kashmir and separatist rebels blamed one another Tuesday for the killings of seven Hindu pilgrims in the region, while government leaders condemned the rare incident that occurred amid heightened tensions.
The pilgrims, including five women, were killed as they rode on a bus traveling along a highway in Anantnag district, south of the Kashmiri capital Srinagar, on Monday night, local police said.
At least 19 other pilgrims were injured aboard the bus carrying 60 pilgrims, who were taking part in a 40-day annual summer pilgrimage to the Amarnath cave-shrine in the surrounding Himalayas, officials said.
Six suspects have been arrested, police said.
“The suspects are being questioned and it would be too early to say anything as investigations are ongoing,” Police Inspector General Muneer Khan told BenarNews.
“However, a preliminary investigation reveals that the attack was committed by LeT, headed by Pakistani militant Ismail,” he added, referring to a Pakistan-based militant group, Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), which is known to be active in Indian Kashmir.
Khan told reporters Tuesday that LeT fighters who were nearby had intended to attack an armored police vehicle, but instead hit the bus as it was passing through the area in the dark, and as the pilgrims were returning from the hard-to-reach shrine tucked in the mountains.
Indian authorities initially attributed the deaths to crossfire, but later said that the militants deliberately targeted the pilgrims.
But the LeT denied the charges, saying the attack was the handiwork of Indian security forces and aimed at tarnishing its fight against India’s “oppressive” rule in Muslim-majority Kashmir.
In a statement issued Tuesday, the LeT disowned the attack, describing it as barbaric and inhumane.
“Islam does not allow violence against any faith. LeT strongly condemns the attack on pilgrims. Indian agencies are carrying out such attacks to sabotage the freedom struggle of Kashmiris,” a local news agency quoted an unnamed spokesman of the group as saying.
The Himalayan region of Kashmir, which is claimed in its entirety by both India and Pakistan, has been grappling with a separatist insurgency that has killed 70,000 people since the late 1980s.
Hindu holy men walk on the road at Chandan Wari in Kashmir’s Anantnag district, during a pilgrimage to the Amarnath cave-shrine in the Himalayas, July 11, 2017. [AFP]
Jammu shuts down
The pilgrimage to the Amarnath cave event began on June 28 amid beefed-up security along the route leading to the shrine.
The attack occurred after local authorities had imposed curfews to prevent protests during the death anniversary of a top Kashmiri separatist, Burhan Wani, in July 2016. At least 20 people were injured last week in clashes with security forces in anti-India protests during the days leading up to the first anniversary of Wani’s killing, which fell over the weekend.
On Tuesday, the Hindu-dominated Jammu region of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir was shut down in a show of solidarity and mourning for the pilgrims who were killed on Monday evening, as authorities ordered the closure of schools and the suspension of Internet services until Wednesday, in order to maintain the peace.
The killings of the seven pilgrims was widely deplored.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi took to social media, tweeting that he was “deeply pained by the dastardly attack.”
Indian President Pranab Mukherjee reacted similarly.
“Grieved over the loss of innocent lives. Strongly condemn the attack,” Mukherjee said in a message posted on Twitter.
There was also international condemnation.
“We strongly condemn the attack on Amarnath pilgrims. Deepest condolences to the families and all injured pilgrims,” Kenneth Juster, who recently was named U.S. ambassador to India, said Tuesday on Twitter.
Amnesty International (AI) in India said the shooting of pilgrims showed “utter contempt for human life and the fundamental principles of humanity.”
“The culprits behind gruesome assault should be punished,” Aakar Patel, AI India’s executive director, told the Indian Express.
The attack occurred a day after police in Indian Kashmir announced that a non-local Hindu who was arrested last week was an alleged member of LeT, the Pakistan-based terror group accused by officials of involvement in a series of recent terror acts, including the killing of six policemen last month and bank robberies.
Sandeep Kumar Sharma (alias Adil) a 30-year-old resident of Uttar Pradesh, was arrested on July 1 from south Kashmir’s Anantanag district before a police encounter in which Bashir Lashkari, a top LeT militant, and his aide Azad Malik were killed, police said.
Kumar was among 17 civilians who were rescued by security forces from a house where two militants were trapped, officials said.