Commandos kill gunmen in Hindu temple after 30 die in raid

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The Independent Online

Indian commandos last night stormed a Hindu temple in Gujarat killing the two gunmen who, in a 14-hour siege, killed 30 people and wounded more than 70.

Indian commandos last night stormed a Hindu temple in Gujarat killing two gunmen who, in a 14-hour siege, killed 30 people and wounded more than 70.

Witnesses reported heavy firing between the National Security Guard commandos and the gunmen in the early hours at the temple in the state's commercial capital of Gandhinagar.

The commandos, flown in earlier from Dehli, to end a siege which had continued since the late afternoon assault by the gunmen, who were armed with automatic weapons and grenades. The violence ­ in which Indian officials said six women and four children died ­ prompted fears of more slaughter in the fractious western state.

"The two attackers were killed shortly after daybreak," said Brigadier Raj Sitapathy, who led the commando raid. There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack, but India's deputy prime minister blamed the attack on Pakistan and linked it to the elections in disputed Kashmir.

Until the commando assault, the attackers had controlled part of the temple complex and had been trading fire with the troops and snipers had surrounded them. A police official said that up to 50 people had been taken hostage.

Brig. Sitapathy told The Associated Press that two letters were recovered from the attackers, whose identities have not been determined. He said the gunmen were "clean shaven, dressed in civilian clothes and appeared to be in early 20s."

Deputy Prime Minister Lal K. Advani, speaking to reporters in New Delhi, described the shooting as a suicide attack. "The enemies of the nation feel that the developments in Jammu and Kashmir are strengthening India's viewpoint, and that a big attack could divert attention from there. I see in this a very deliberate design," he said.

India accuses Pakistan ­ with whom it came to the brink of war earlier this year ­ of trying to disrupt the election by orchestrating violence.

There were words of condemnation from representatives of India's Muslim 130 million minority and from Pakistan itself, which moved swiftly to deny any role.

The attackers are thought to have burst into the 22-acre site in which the temple stands. Some reports said the gunmen had taken up positions among the domes and balustrades of the temple roof. As the siege developed, the walls of the sandstone temple were bathed in police spotlights. The attackers entered the shrine shortly before 5pm local time, and began mowing down people.

Witnesses said they fired into a crowd gathered in a exhibition hall within the complex and sent worshippers and visitors fleeing in panic.

Balwant Shukwant Patel, 25, a worshipper, said: "I saw five gunmen inside. We were sitting under a tree when they started firing indiscriminately. We thought someone was setting off firecrackers. People started running here and there." Up to 60 people were receiving treatment in hospital for injuries, of whom some were in serious condition.

The identity of the attackers was not immediately clear but India was in little doubt that they were Islamic militants. Ominous muttering emanated from some senior government circles about possible Pakistani involvement.

Officials from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) reportedly said the attack was intended to stoke tension and suggested it could have been launched by "Pakistan- supported terrorists", frustrated by "the success" of elections in Indian-controlled Kashmir. Pakistan responded by accusing India's BJP leaders of "Pakistan-phobia", and of utomatically blaming Pakistan for all India's ills.

Soon after the attack, TV pictures showed scores of local security forces brandishing semi-automatic guns swarming into the temple, as the injured ­ some drenched with blood ­ staggered out, or were taken away on stretchers. The incident comes in a period of strife and tension in the area. Up to 2,000 people, mostly Muslims, are thought to have died in Gujarat in two months of sectarian violence that began in February when 58 Hindus were burnt to death after a train carrying Hindu activists was attacked by Muslims.

Security forces in Gujarat and other volatile areas were yesterday placed on high alert, and the state government's cabinet went into emergency session. Temples were closed and ­ fearful of violence ­ shopkeepers in Gandhinagar locked up their premises. "This is like kerosene on a fire", observed one local.

The attack occurred in the constituency of India's Deputy Prime Minister, Lal Advani, a Hindu nationalist with a reputation as a hardliner. He appealed for restraint, and flew to the scene. He described the attack as a suicide operation.

Atal Biharee Vajpayee, the Indian Prime Minister, decided to cut short an official visit to the Maldives and is to return to India today.

The assault came on a tense day in which the region's attention was trained on the elections in Indian-controlled Kashmir, where some 500 people ­ including a state law minister ­ have been killed since the poll was announced in August. India's federal Election Commission said that 42 per cent of voters cast ballots yesterday in three key districts. Pakistan has dismissed the elections as farcical.