| Jawans near the blast site at Gulabbagh on Sunday. (PTI)
Srinagar, May 23: A landmine explosion killed 29 people travelling in a bus on the Srinagar-Jammu highway today in an early reminder to newly-installed Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of the challenges of his office.
Border Security Force personnel and their families died in the blast when the bus ran over the improvised explosive device at Lowermunda near Gulabbagh, 80 km from here in Anantnag district. Six women and four children were among the dead.
A Pakistan-based militant group claimed responsibility for the blast. “The attack was carried out to remember the martyrs of Hizb-ul Mujahideen,” Hizb spokesman Junaid-ul-Islam told Reuters.
“Hizb-ul Mujahideen has claimed responsibility and, if this is correct, this is a vengeful action as militants have suffered serious reverses at the hands of security forces in the recent past,” Ajai Raj Sharma, the BSF director-general, said. In the past month, two top Hizb leaders have been killed in gun battles with the security forces.
Sharma said the landmine was planted in a water pipe on a culvert. Some 40 BSF personnel were in the bus when the explosion occurred. It was the deadliest incident of militant violence since India and Pakistan began the peace process last year.
The Hizb statement about remembering “martyrs”, combined with Sharma’s surmise of “vengeful action”, suggests the timing of the explosion only a day after the swearing-in of the new government is a coincidence.
In Delhi, the cabinet passed a resolution condemning the blast. The Prime Minister said: “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.”
Singh, however, emphasised that the government would continue to seek peaceful resolutions to all outstanding problems.
Pranab Mukherjee, tipped to get the home ministry, said: “We would like to, on the one hand, strengthen security forces and, on the other, carry on the political dialogue which is necessary to ease tension.”
The bus had left Srinagar early this morning carrying the troopers on leave and their families towards Jammu and was part of a convoy when it hit the explosive. The bus was left a twisted mass of metal near a giant crater.
Torn limbs, blood-stained shoes and clothes, as well as lunch boxes with rice and bread lay strewn on the ground as soldiers and sniffer dogs combed the area. “There was a loud explosion which shook the earth. When I turned back, a bus was in flames,” said Mohammad Subhan, a porter.
“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.”
A civil mini-bus, which was passing by at the time of explosion, was damaged and rolled down from the highway injuring four occupants.
“We have recovered the bodies of 17 troopers and 12 family members,” said the Kashmir range police chief, inspector-general of police K. Rajendra.
Among the dead are six ladies, four children and two other relatives. Their bodies have been recovered and brought to Srinagar.”
Soldiers with metal detectors, who were pressed into service to scan the highway for other explosives, detected and defused a powerful IED planted on the highway.
All traffic on the highway had been suspended for about five hours, stranding hundreds of vehicles.