Singh faces first crisis as Kashmir bomb kills 33

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The Independent Online

Just one day into his tenure as India's first non-Hindu Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh was faced with his first diplomatic test after a bomb attack killed at least 33 people in the disputed state of Kashmir.

A landmine ripped apart a bus carrying border security forces and their families travelling for holidays. The remote-controlled devicedetonated as the bus passed along the national highway on its way from Srinagar to Jammu. The attack was the deadliest in Kashmir since India and Pakistan began a peace process late last year.

The blast took place near the Pir Panjal mountains, a favoured hideout for Islamic militants fighting Indian rule in Kashmir, where tens of thousands of people have died in 15 years of rebellion.

"There was a loud explosion which shook the earth. When I turned back, a bus was in flames," Mohammad Subhan, a porter, told reporters last night.

"We ran towards the bus. We could hear the cries of people. Some broke windows and jumped. We could only take them to nearby homes, but it was too late."

Police say 18 soldiers, 6 women, five male relatives and four children were killed.

"The bodies were charred beyond recognition, so it took time to identify them. It became difficult to even identify our own soldiers," said K. Srinivasan, the deputy inspector-general of the region's border security forces.

A leading Pakistan-based rebel group, Hizbul Mujahideen, which is seeking the merger of Kashmir with Pakistan, claimed responsibility for the blast.

"The attack was carried out to remember the martyrs of Hizbul Mujahideen," Hizbul spokesman Junaid-ul-Islam told reporters.

Indian police have killed two senior Hizbul leaders in gunbattles in the past month, as part of counter-insurgency operations in the Himalayan region.

Analysts said the timing of the attack was a coincidence and it would not affect the peace process.

"I think it should not," Uday Bhaskar of the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses in New Delhi told Reuters. "If Hizbul is claiming responsibility then the onus is on Pakistan to demonstrate its commitment to the peace process and its commitment to war against terrorism. It is a coincidence a new government has taken over and an attack has taken place."

More than 65,000 people have been killed in the insurgency in Indian administered Kashmir that began in 1989. The state is the only one in India that has a Muslim majority.

India has long accused Islamabad of funding and supporting separatist rebels in Kashmir, a charge that Pakistan denies.

India's new government, of which 67 ministers were sworn-in on Saturday, held its first meeting yesterday. The new Cabinet passed a resolution condemning the attack.

Mr Singh has promised to make finding a peaceful solution to the dispute over Kashmir a high priority for his government. Last night he strongly condemned the attack as "cowardly" and "senseless".

"I have learned with the deepest sorrow about the latest cowardly act of terrorists in Jammu and Kashmir.

"The persistence of this senseless violence in Jammu and Kashmir is yet another indication that terrorism continues to pose a grave threat to our nation's integrity and progress," he said in a statement.

"While we will continue to seek peaceful resolutions to all outstanding problems, there can be no compromise on our solemn resolve to deal with the menace of terrorism with firm determination."

The bombers struck the day after the Commonwealth agreed to readmit Pakistan. The group suspended Pakistan five years ago after a military coup led by the country's current president, General Pervez Musharraf. Pakistan was readmitted to the Commonwealth because of steps it has taken towards democracy and because of the role it has played in the US-led war on terror

Gen Musharraf and Mr Singh spoke for the first time yesterday, Pakistan's state-run APP news agency said. Gen Musharraf congratulated Mr Singh on his victory in a telephone conversation that lasted for 20 minutes.