At least 33 paramilitary police officers were killed by a massive car bomb blast in Indian-controlled Kashmir on Thursday in the worst attack on security personnel since the start of the insurgency in the disputed region three decades ago.
The attacker struck around 3:15 p.m., police officials said, as a security convoy of 70 vehicles traveled down a heavily guarded road toward the city of Srinagar.
An explosive-laden vehicle driven by a militant rammed into a bus carrying dozens of paramilitary personnel, said Sanjay Sharma, a spokesman for India’s Central Reserve Police Force.
The killings will inflame tensions between nuclear-armed rivals India and Pakistan, which both claim the Himalayan territory of Kashmir. India accuses Pakistan of sheltering and supporting militants that cross into Indian-controlled territory to carry out attacks against Indian rule.
Kashmir is part of India’s only Muslim-majority state. Militant groups are fighting either for the territory’s independence or its merger with Pakistan.
Jaish-e-Mohammed, a militant group that seeks to merge Indian-held Kashmir with Pakistan, claimed responsibility for Thursday’s attack. The group is based in Pakistan and headed by a radical cleric named Maulana Masood Azhar. Last year, the United States pushed the United Nations Security Council to designate Azhar as a terrorist, but the move was vetoed by China.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is seeking reelection later this spring, called the attack “despicable” in a post on Twitter. “I strongly condemn this dastardly attack,” he wrote. “The sacrifices of our brave security personnel shall not go in vain.”
Modi has taken a tough line on matters of national security. In 2016, a team of militants stormed an army base near the town of Uri in Indian-held Kashmir, killing 19 soldiers. In the days after the Uri attack, Modi ordered what the government termed “surgical strikes” on militant hideouts just inside Pakistan-controlled territory.
Satya Pal Malik, governor of Jammu and Kashmir state, said Thursday’s attack “seems to be guided from across the border,” a reference to Pakistan, according to a statement reported by news agency ANI.
Indian news outlets showed images of the wreckage left by the attack, including a vehicle that was blasted open and reduced to ribbons of charred metal.
Kenneth Juster, the U.S. ambassador to India, posted a statement on Twitter condemning the attack and sending condolences to the families of the victims. “The United States stands alongside India in confronting terror and defeating it,” he wrote.
Violence is on the rise in Indian-controlled Kashmir. Last year was the deadliest in a decade in the region, with deaths among security forces, militants and civilians all increasing.
Kabir Taneja, an expert on national security at the Observer Research Foundation in Delhi, said that this type of large-scale bomb attack is rare in Kashmir, where militants often mount attacks using firearms, not improvised explosive devices.
National security is “sacrosanct” for India’s ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, he added. “They will not forget this.”
Naseem reported from in Srinagar, India.