India sends in troops to stop fresh round of slaughter

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The Independent Online

India has dispatched thousands of troops to its turmoil-ridden western state of Gujarat yesterday in an attempt to prevent another explosion of sectarian bloodletting after 30 people, mostly worshippers, were killed in an attack on a Hindu temple by suspected Islamic militants.

India has dispatched thousands of troops to its turmoil-ridden western state of Gujarat yesterday in an attempt to prevent another explosion of sectarian bloodletting after 30 people, mostly worshippers, were killed in an attack on a Hindu temple by suspected Islamic militants.

The killings have rekindled hostilities between India and Pakistan, which both have nuclear arms. Delhi accused its rival of playing a role behind the scenes – an allegation Pakistan dismissed as nonsense.

In Gujarat, attention focused on the possibility of another instalment of the nightmarish communal violence of February and March, when an estimated 2,000 people – mostly Muslims killed by Hindus – died in reprisals for a Muslim attack on a train carrying Hindu activists, in which 58 people were killed.

The risk of more rape, death and beatings was considered sufficiently serious for the Indian government to send 3,000 soldiers to Gujarat yesterday, at the request of the state, whose officials faced fierce criticism for failing to act decisively over the latest bout of killing. In Gandhinagar, the commercial capital and scene of the massacre, shops, schools, colleges and most businesses were closed, partly because opposition groups had called a strike.

The attack and siege at the Swaminarayan Temple in Gandhinagar came to an end at dawn yesterday, after a night of sporadic gunfights, when Indian commandos stormed in and killed the two gunmen.

The trouble began in the early evening on Tuesday, when the attackers pulled up in a car and burst into the grounds of the temple – a 108ft pink sandstone shrine adorned with domes and colonnades and set amid sweeping lawns – and opened fire with Kalashnikovs and grenades. Inside, there were about 500 Hindu pilgrims, saffron-robed priests, guides and souvenir traders.

Witnesses said the death toll – 27 worshippers or temple workers, as well as two policemen and a commando – would probably have been higher but for the swift action of volunteers inside the building who shut the doors when the raid began.

The attack has caused anger across India, adding fresh strain to the troubled relationship between Hindus and the Muslim minority. The Indian media reported that the gunmen belonged to a hitherto unknown group called Tehreek e Kasis and, incriminatingly, carried notes in their pockets written in Urdu.

There were appeals for calm from the Indian government, including the Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who visited the scene, but these were countered by hardline Hindu groups which demanded official action against the "jihadi terrorists". The groups included the World Hindu Council, allies of Mr Vajpayee, which called for a national strike today.

No organisation has claimed responsibility for the attack, and the gunmen have not been identified. But India's Deputy Prime Minister, Lal Krishna Advani, blamed Pakistan, citing a speech made two weeks ago by its President, General Pervez Musharraf, to the United Nations, in which he spoke about the killing of Muslims in the state of Gujarat.

Mr Advani said: "Our enemy went to the United Nations and spoke about Gujarat. From that, it appears they had been planning for some time and this attack has been executed to implement their designs."

In Islamabad, a Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokesman, Aziz Ahmad Khan, called the accusation "ridiculous" and condemned the attack on the temple. A foreign ministry spokesman in Islamabad described the Indian allegation as "highly irresponsible" and said that it would only add to tension in the region.

Indian forces, meanwhile, killed five suspected Islamic militants who were trying to cross into disputed Kashmir from Pakistan yesterday. Indian and Pakistani troops also exchanged artillery and small arms fire overnight along the Line of Control, which separates the two armies in Kashmir, and on the high altitude Siachen glacier in the far north.

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