Blast rips heart out of peace
Srinagar is back to normal & bleeding
Blame on Big Two
Pak clash tossed out
Calcutta weather

Srinagar, Aug. 10 
Hizbul Mujahideen militants tore the peace talks to shreds within 48 hours of scrapping their ceasefire, killing 15 and injuring 30 others in daytime attacks throughout the Valley today.

They made their most lethal strike in the heart of Srinagar with a remote-controlled car-bomb explosion that killed 13 and injured 30 others, some of them critically.

Militants also hurled grenades in three other downtown areas of Srinagar and opened fire on a BSF patrol in Baramulla, killing one jawan. A civilian is also reported killed in the exchange of fire that followed the Baramulla ambush.

The Hizbul Mujahideen owned responsibility for today’s attacks in a statement from Islamabad. The Lashkar-e-Toiba, another Pakistan-based militant outfit which was against any talks with New Delhi, has also claimed responsibility for the attacks.

A Lashkar spokesman telephoned a local news agency, CNS, and claimed that an Ambassador car of J& K Bank, forcibly taken by its activists, was used in the blast. However, in Islamabad, Hizbul Mujahideen spokesman Saleem Hashmi claimed the responsibility for the attacks.

The Hizbul’s strikes have virtually detonated the peace talks. As incident after incident shook Srinagar, the focus appears to have shifted from talks to hostilities.

Though not taken by surprise by the renewed militant violence, the state administration and the security forces have been rattled by the sporadic strikes.

Chief minister Farooq Abdullah condemned the attacks but said they were expected. However, he held only the Lashkar-e-Toiba responsible for the attacks and refrained from blaming Hizbul, which too has claimed responsibility, perhaps in the hope that some of their commanders will still come overground.

The car bomb went off a little past noon opposite the Kothi Bagh police/paramilitary garrison along the high-security Residency Road, the city’s main artery. Most of those blown in the blast were policemen and paramilitary personnel. The Hindustan Times photographer Pradeep Bhatia, who had arrived from New Delhi yesterday, was also killed.

Several still and video cameramen, who had converged at Kothi Bagh alerted by a grenade blast that preceded the car bomb, were critically injured. They include CNN producer Suhasini, Zee News cameraman Irfan and Reuters photographer Fayaz Kabli.

Senior policemen, including SP (Srinagar East) Pankaj Dard and the SHO Kothi Bagh, Altaf Ahmed, were reported to be in a critical state at the Badami Bagh Army hospital. Kuldeep Sharma, DSP of Kothi Bagh, was killed in the blast.

The bomb was planted in a white Ambassador car (JK01 9009) with fake J&K Bank markings and parked in a narrow lane opposite the Kothi Bagh police station. Police and media personnel had converged on a spot close to the explosive-laden car when the bomb was set off. The explosion tore into several adjoining vehicles and shattered windowpanes as far as 500 metres away.

The explosion, though widely expected after the Hizbul’s Pakistan-based bosses called off the ceasefire on August 8, sent terror and tension rippling down Srinagar. Even as the explosion was reverberating, security personnel cordoned off the area and shops and other establishments in the Srinagar’s commercial hub downed shutters.    

Srinagar, Aug. 10 
An hour or so before he was consumed by the Kothi Bagh car bomb, Pradeep Bhatia, of The Hindustan Times was polishing his lenses in the foyer of a downtown hotel. “Picture hi nahin ban rahi,” he had told me as he strode off, “Aaj shaayad kuchh milay.” (I haven’t got a good picture yet, perhaps I’ll get one today.)

A while later he was being lifted out of the mayhem of Kothi Bagh into a paramilitary van. One of his boots, charred to soot, had fallen off his feet. His camera, its lens cracked, lay flung in the pavement dust. His life was oozing out of him. He hadn’t got a picture; he had probably become one.

I had gone a different way from the hotel in search of invisible leads to a story that has been confounding to say the least. My blind pursuit had taken me to the Gogji Bagh residence of the Hurriyat chairman Prof Abdul Ghani

Butt where all that awaited me was the usual: absences and no comments.

After a week’s relentless heat, Srinagar had suddenly turned pleasant; it was drizzling and bracing breeze was surfing across town as I drove back. At last, Srinagar felt like Srinagar.

Then, quite suddenly, Srinagar became a little more like Srinagar. A bomb blew. The birds all flew off Residency Road’s resplendent chinar trees like pins off a cluster device. Everything was aflutter. Cries rose, people on the pavements ducked and scattered. And just as the echo of the blast was settling, there was gunfire. Burst after short burst.

We were driving right into the blast. We were probably a couple of hundred metres away on the Eastern end of the Residency road when it ripped the crammed lane opposite the Kothi Bagh police station, mauling automobiles to

twisted metal, tearing through glass and concrete and taking away a dozen curious lives that had converged there to see what damage a grenade lobbed minutes earlier may have done.

The first I saw alighting from the cab was troops kneeling in the middle of the road and firing at a building behind me. Shots were whistling out of the windows of the white building just behind the police station. The troops were blindly returning fire. “There, there, shoot them, search them out, shoot them,” an officer was crying out. Behind the officer was a cluster of cameramen, bleeding, wailing, looking for help where everybody was running scared. Nobody quite seemed to know what was happening. For a few minutes after the blast nobody quite cared.

Some armed policemen, frazzled and panic-stricken, were running back into the safety of the police station as the exchange of fire continued. It was upto a lathi-wielding hawaldar to scream them out onto the streets. “Tumhare paas bandooken hain, bahar jaao, baahar jaao,” he shouted. (You have guns, go out, go out onto the street.) But it was mostly paramilitary jawans who held their guns and returned fire.

It was a task to extract a vehicle from the melee to load the injured —- mostly cameramen and photographers —- and despatch them to hospitals. So many security jeeps and armoured personnel carriers had converged on the road from all sides, any movement seemed impossible. One photographer, his leg broken, his face streaked with blood, lay on the steps of the police station. Another, his broken arm unable to lug the camera bag, had collapsed on the street and was asking around for cigarettes. “Someone, someone give me a cigarette, I cannot believe I am alive, God, am I alive after that blast, am I talking?” Yet another was wailing inconsolably. “He’s dead, he’s dead, my friend, he could not be alive, the state I saw him in, he could not be alive.”

The lane was a mangle of confusion: burning metal, shards and shrapnel, abandoned personnel effects, guns and ammunition the jawans had lost, policemen, troops, journalists looking for other journalists, shouting, crying. Several of those who died lay flung around the skeleton of the Ambassador car which bore the bomb, like vultures had visited them. An ambulance —- or a makeshift one —- arrived, blaring. But there was no point taking anyone away from the site of the blast any longer. They were gone. Terror had come back. Srinagar, this morning, was Srinagar again.    

New Delhi, Aug 10 
Amid the blood-splattered debris of Kashmir’s peace process, questions are being asked about the role of the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) and the national security adviser in a fiasco possibly greater than the Kargil incursions and the Indian Airlines hijack.

Even as the government made concerted efforts to pin the blame on the Hizbul Mujahideen and Pakistan for the talks breakdown, it could not paper over charges that the highest intelligence wings in the PMO and the home ministry were at fault.

What makes the Kashmir killings a greater blunder is that during the double crisis of 1999, few intelligence inputs were available.

The PMO was more to blame because it tried to wrest the issue from the home ministry. Though North Block denied him clearance, national security adviser Brajesh Mishra decided to go ahead with the talks without realising that the intelligence agencies were not yet ready with the Hizb’s innumerable allegiances — to the Kashmiri people, to its local cadre and to the Pakistan-based high command.

The PMO and the home ministry differed in their “approach” to the Hizbul offer. North Block was in favour of a step-by-step progress, especially after it was convinced by Hizbul’s India chief Abdul Majid Dar’s “genuine” and “sincere” offer and the claim that he commanded the support of the majority of the Kashmir-based cadre and at least four of the six divisional commanders operating out of the state.

The home ministry told the PMO that it wanted to make a more in-depth examination of the situation before going ahead with the talks.

But Mishra appeared to have brushed aside the argument and instead insisted that the Centre should not waste time, especially since Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee is due to visit the US in September.

The home ministry gave in because it did not want to miss out on the possible kudos in case the talks took off.

Apart from giving the PMO the overriding decision-making authority, the home ministry erred in conceding ground to South Block.

In North Block, home minister L.K. Advani chose to play along and hoped the PMO would perform the much-awaited miracle and bring the Hizb on both sides of the LoC to agree to talks.

Though he was not fully convinced, Advani had hoped the ceasefire would hold water. But what is worse is that even Vajpayee submitted to his security adviser’s wishes.

It is not the first time that Mishra has scuttled the home ministry’s opinions.

Top officials pointed out how the security adviser hijacked the dialogue issue with the All-Party Hurriyat Conference after several of its leaders were released in April.

“The PMO took the lead, but the result is that the Hurriyat is yet to formally approach the government that it was ready to talk. Where does that leave the Centre?” asked an official.

The government is now trying to avoid flak by insisting it was the Hizb, after all, which made public its offer of ceasefire. At the same time, Delhi is saying the talks had been on with the Hizb for four months. The question which neither the PMO nor the home ministry is willing to answer is why the Centre agreed to talk when it was not ready for it.    

Calcutta, Aug. 10 
For the second year running, India will not play Pakistan in Toronto.

In a move that is more than just significant, this announcement came from Union sports minister Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa and not the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI).

“I personally kept the Prime Minister (Atal Behari Vajpayee) informed and his views were taken into account in reaching this decision (non-clearance from the sports ministry)... Obviously, interaction with the foreign ministry was there, too,” Dhindsa told The Telegraph this evening.

Contacted on his mobile in New Delhi, Dhindsa added: “Is mahaul mein clearance ka sawaal hi nahin banta tha... I’ve always maintained national interest is paramount and that national sentiments must be respected.”

Was this morning’s carnage in Srinagar the proverbial last straw?

Dhindsa replied: “Not really, we had been working out our stand for the past few days.”

[Earlier in the day, Dhindsa told the media: “How can we play a friendship series against Pakistan (five matches between September 9-17), when that country is indulging in mayhem in Kashmir?

“The whole nation is upset by the killing of innocents by Pakistani agents. We had no alternative to not clearing the BCCI proposal.”]

By going ahead and making the announcement himself, instead of allowing the BCCI to make a statement, Dhindsa also scored another point in his on-going tussle with the BCCI.

The BCCI, of course, reacted in hot-and-cold manner.

While Vadodara-based secretary Jaywant Lele had “no comments” to offer, president A.C. Muthiah said from Chennai: “We abide by the decision but, I suppose, the same logic would apply to the participation of Indian athletes and the hockey team in the Sydney Olympics.”

Not quite, for the Olympic-engagements aren’t bilateral. But, that will be another story.    

Temperature: Maximum: 30°C (-2) Minimum: 25.9°C (normal) RAINFALL: 12.5 mm Relative humidity: Maximum: 97%, Minimum: 83% Today: One or two spells of light rain in Calcutta and suburbs. Sunset: 6.10 pm Sunrise: 5.13 am    

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