| Security personnel stand guard behind the body of a victim at Raghunath temple. (AFP)
Jammu/New Delhi, Nov. 24: Militants struck for the second time in nine months at the 150-year-old Raghunath temple in the heart of Jammu city, engaging security forces in an exchange of fire that continued into the night.
After around three hours of gun battle, a militant was killed inside the inner Ram Lakshmi temple in the complex. If he had accomplices, they had fled. Firing had been heard in the nearby Rupewallah temple, too.
Eight persons, including a CRPF jawan, died in the encounter and 35 were injured. Among them are more than a dozen devotees and two pujaris who were inside the temple at the time of the attack around 7 pm.
“The reason we believe that no more terrorists are around is because the firing in Raghunath temple has ceased,” said a police officer supervising the operation.
Around the time of the puja in the Raghunath temple, there were blasts in two adjacent markets — Residency Road and Hari Market — usually thronged by tourists and Vaishno Devi pilgrims. Today being a Sunday, the markets were closed.
The militants first struck at Shaheedi Chowk opposite the Congress headquarters and later triggered a blast near a hotel.
Some eyewitness accounts suggested that a militant started throwing grenades when the guards manning the checking point at the Raghunath temple wanted to frisk him.
Nursing a splinter injury on his forehead, Sunil said: “I saw one terrorist who was not carrying a gun but was lobbing grenades as he ran into the temple.”
The CRPF, which conducted the commando operation, did not confirm if there was more than one militant. “The complex is now cleared,” an officer said.
Some people tried to set the killed militant on fire, but police thwarted the attempt and whisked away his body. The militant was wearing a shirt and trousers. No group has yet claimed responsibility for the attack.
Security forces carried out the simultaneous operation of clearing the temple of militants and rescuing devotees stuck inside as angry residents protested against the state administration for having failed to prevent a second terrorist strike on the temple. In March, 10 people had died in a similar attack.
The demonstrators were shouting slogans against the new government headed by Mufti Mohammad Sayeed. “Aur chhoro ugrawadiyon ko aur dekho yeh sab (Free more militants and see this happen),” they said.
An alert was sounded in Delhi and quick-reaction teams were deployed at various places following intelligence reports that a similar strike may take place in the capital.
News of the attack came when a meeting was going on in Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s house to discuss the government stand on the resignation of Justice K. Venkataswami from the Tehelka probe.
Later, deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani said: “It is clear that militants have targeted Raghunath temple to create communal disturbance.”
He appealed for calm, asking people to realise their designs. The government will make a statement in Parliament tomorrow. It hopes that the incident — the first attack on a civilian target since the new government took over — will act as a wake-up call for Mufti, who has taken steps that are seen as being soft towards militancy.
The BJP blamed the new government’s “appeasement policy” for today’s attack. “The terrorist strike is a natural fallout of the soft corner of the Congress-PDP government for terrorists and secessionists. Their morale has been boosted as a result of the state government’s appeasement policy,” BJP general secretary and spokesman Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi said.
With the Gujarat elections due on December 12, the attack hands the BJP an opportunity to hit out at the Congress, which is a part of the Mufti coalition, for being soft on terrorism.
Mufti had promised not to use the Prevention of Terrorism Act, but home ministry officials in Delhi hope that the temple attack will make him change his mind.