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Killers in uniform massacre Pundits

Srinagar, March 24: Militants in army fatigues lined up several Kashmiri Pundits outside their homes and gunned down 24 last night, prompting chief minister Mufti Mohammed Sayeed to admit that the raid was a “great setback” to the peace process he had initiated.

When the carnage ended in Nadimarg village, 11 men, 11 women, and two girls, one aged four and the other two, lay dead.

Kashmir range police chief K. Rajendra said the heavily-armed militants came to the village, in Pulwama district, and disarmed the policemen guarding the Pundits. “The gunmen told the police they wanted to search the area. They first snatched their weapons and later fired indiscriminately on the Pundit villagers. So far, the police have recovered 24 bodies,” Rajendra said.

There was no claim of responsibility for the attack, which comes close on the heels of the murder of former Hizb-ul Mujahideen operations chief Abdul Majid Dar.

Villagers who survived the massacre recalled the horror. “There was a knock on the door. These people said ‘we are security forces and want to search houses for militants’,” said 22-year-old Deepak Kumar, who hid inside his house.

Peeping through a hole, he saw the men lining up the villagers. “I closed my eyes and then I heard the shots,” said Kumar, whose mother was among those who died.

“They lined up all of us outside the houses and fired,” said 55-year-old Chunni Lal, with wounds on his shoulder and thigh. “I was hit. I fell down and pretended to be dead. I heard one gunman ask another to make sure I was dead. They fired at me again.”

“My mother was begging for my ailing father’s life, but they showered bullets on both of them,” said 38-year-old Bhushan Lal.

The state government has suspended nine policemen, who were posted there for the security of minorities. They had allegedly fled the scene.

Mufti, who promised to bring a “healing touch” to the region, called last night’s killings “a great setback to the peace process”.

In Delhi, the Centre called an emergency meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Security. “We’ll keep the situation under review and take whatever steps are necessary to meet such situations,” foreign minister Yashwant Sinha said.

Pakistan denounced the attack while the separatist Hurriyat Conference described it as a “barbaric and beastly act”.

US secretary of state Colin Powell called up Sinha to express regret at the loss of lives in the “horrible terrorist attack” and said he would speak to Pakistan again about cross-border terrorism. British foreign secretary Jack Straw also telephoned Sinha to say “the UK strongly condemns such acts”.

The massacre is a blow to the state government’s plan to bring back the Pundits and settle them in “safe havens” in Srinagar and in Anantnag.

Outraged Pundit organisations said the killings have exposed the “hollow claims of the Mufti government that no harm will be caused to Pundits returning to the Valley”. One group, the Kashmiri Samiti, said the killing of innocent men, women and children has led to a situation where a “mighty nation like India is waiting impotently for the next strike”.

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