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VIPs target in Kashmir hit

Srinagar, April 8: Election-bound Kashmir was yanked out of a peace-induced lull this afternoon when nine persons were killed and two ministers injured in a militant attack on a rally.

Mehbooba Mufti, the chief of the ruling People’s Democratic Party, was also in the crowd when a grenade exploded but she escaped unhurt.

However, finance minister Muzzaffar Hussein Beigh and tourism minister Ghulam Hassan Mir were injured. The ministers’ security guards and civilians took the full impact of the grenade lobbed by militants at the rally venue in Uri, a bustling trading town near the LoC.

The extremists backed up the bomb attack with indiscriminate firing, pushing the toll up to nine. The condition of 20 of the 52 injured is said to be critical.

The target appears to have been picked with care as the rally— besides seeking votes for the PDP — was aimed at pressing for the Srinagar-Muzzafarabad bus service, one of the features of the Indo-Pak peace process. Most militant organisations had condemned the thaw in bilateral relations.

This is the first time in recent times that an attack of this ferocity has been mounted on a rally. Political activists and prospective voters were threatened but rallies were largely spared even during the Assembly elections in 2002 when tension with Pakistan was at its peak.

Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who counts the successful Assembly elections in Kashmir among his trophy achievements, moved with alacrity to condemn today’s attack and called for “full-strength” participation in the national polls. The Prime Minister spoke to chief minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed and expressed hope that the people of the state “would reiterate their commitment to democracy”.

A man identifying himself as a spokesman for Jamiat-ul-Mujahideen, a small Pakistan-based group of Kashmiri militants, called Reuters to claim responsibility for the attack.

But PTI said the Save Kashmir Movement, a shadow group of the Lashkar-e-Toiba, has claimed responsibility.

Before the attack, security forces had killed a man they described as the chief commander of the Jaish-e-Mohammad. The commander, Qari Asif, had replaced Gazi Baba, the Parliament attack mastermind who was killed last year.

The grenade strike occurred when the ministers and Mehbooba were heading to a school where the rally was scheduled. “When I heard the explosion, I was on the roof of a van and I jumped down,” said Abdul Rashid, a PDP supporter. “I saw people in pools of blood crying for help.”

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