Panic after deadly New Delhi blasts

Powerful explosions ripped through crowded markets in New Delhi just moments apart on Saturday, killing at least 55 people in an apparently coordinated attack on the eve of a major Hindu holiday.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but Prime Minister Manmohan Singh blamed “terrorism” as suspicion fell on militant groups opposed to the peace process between India and its Muslim neighbour Pakistan.

More than 150 people were injured in the blasts, which hit areas popular with locals and Western tourists. Shops were reduced to ruins, and the blasts set off a number of blazes that added to the mayhem.

“People were running in panic,” said shopkeeper Sachinder Pal Singha at Sarojini Nagar market. “I threw shawls on top of people because they were on fire.”

Authorities put the capital on maximum alert and closed down other markets, while Indian security officials held an emergency meeting to address the blasts, which seemed to have been planned to inflict maximum carnage.

A police spokesperson said 10 men have been detained—three at the railway station near one of the blast sites, and seven others in raids across the city.

The explosions hit two markets—Sarojini Nagar and Paharganj—while a third blast reportedly hit a bus in Delhi’s Okhla industrial district.

The blasts hit early on Saturday evening as tens of thousands of shoppers thronged the markets, stocking up on food and buying gifts before Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights that begins on Tuesday.

“We have 55 dead in various hospitals,” said a health ministry official, adding that 152 had been injured.
The Press Trust of India said the injured included foreign tourists.

The explosions came just hours after diplomats from India and Pakistan met to discuss opening up their de facto border in the disputed region of Kashmir to speed up relief to victims from the October 8 earthquake.

“The target is clearly the innocent citizens,” Singh said in a statement issued by his office.

“The prime minister has expressed shock and distress over the blasts, but has asserted that militant violence would not weaken the country’s resolve to fight terrorism,” the statement said. “Efforts to spread chaos and disturb peace will not be allowed to succeed at any cost.”

Pakistan denounced the attacks as a “criminal act of terrorism” and called on Delhi to quickly bring the culprits to justice.

“Pakistan strongly condemns the terrorist attacks in New Delhi, which have resulted in the loss of a number of innocent lives,” Islamabad’s foreign ministry said in a statement. “The people and government of Pakistan are shocked at this barbaric act.”

Search for perpetrators

India and Pakistan, nuclear-armed rivals both created at the partition of the region in 1947, began a tentative peace process last year.

But they have fought three wars since their creation, two of them over the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir, with India repeatedly blaming Pakistan for allowing Muslim militants to enter its sector of the divided region.

Rohan Gunaratna, the head of research into terrorism at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies in Singapore, said groups opposed to the peace process are likely to blame.

“It is very likely that the attacks were conducted by a terrorist group opposed to the peace process between India and Pakistan,” he said in an interview.

Momentum for peace appeared to have been on the rise since the earthquake three weeks ago, which was centred in Kashmir and killed at least 54 000 people, most of them on the Pakistani side.

Pakistani analyst Hasan Askari said the blasts may have been carried out by extremists trying to stall talks between the two nations on opening up the Line of Control, the de facto border that splits Kashmir between the two nations.

“The extremists think that this would lead to the softening or disappearance of the Line of Control, which they do not favour,” said Askari, former head of the political-science department at Lahore’s Punjab University.

The PTI news agency reported that Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT), which has already been banned by Islamabad, could be behind the attack.

LeT has engineered several attacks in India, including ones on Parliament, the Red Fort and most recently at a disputed religious structure between Hindus and Moslems in a northern Indian town.

LeT was also behind a number of the seven blasts in New Delhi in 1998.

International condemnation

World leaders condemned the attacks.

“This is yet another example of terrorists’ cynical and callous disregard for human life,” British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said.

The European Union’s foreign policy chief Javier Solana said he “firmly condemned the terrorist attacks”.

South African President Thabo Mbeki also condemned the series of bomb blasts.

In a message to his counterpart, Indian President Dr Abdul Kalam, Mbeki said: “Please accept the condolences of the South African government and people following this dastardly act of terror.

“The South African government joins the international community in condemning these heinous acts of terrorism, particularly in a country that espouses the principles of democracy and freedom of its people.”

United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan condemned what he called the “terrorist outrage” in New Delhi.

“The secretary general is appalled by and condemns the series of terrorist bombings which have resulted in many deaths in the Indian capital,” a statement released by Annan’s press office said. “The secretary general is particularly shocked that this latest terrorist outrage has occurred on the eve of the major Hindu festival of Diwali.”

The UN chief urged the Indian government to bring the perpetrators to justice as soon as possible.—Sapa-DPA, Sapa, AFP

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