Kashmir militants suspected after landmine blast in market kills 17


A powerful landmine ripped through a crowded vegetable market in northern India's disputed Kashmir state yesterday, killing 17 people, including four security forces personnel and injuring 31 others, many seriously.

Officials said the blast caused panic in Batmaloo market on the outskirts of the state's summer capital, Srinagar. The market lies between an army and a paramilitary camp and is patronised by the security forces. The area was immediately cordoned off by the police, as dazed shopkeepers helped carry off dismembered bodies and the injured to hospital.

No one has claimed responsibility for detonating the device, but security officials blamed Muslim separatists fighting Kashmir's decade-old civil war for independence.

Yesterday's bomb blast is a continuation of unrelenting militant attacks across Kashmir in which more than 50 paramilitary and police personnel have been killed in the past four weeks. It also comes three days after the widely criticised exchange by India of three Kashmiri militants for 160 hostages aboard an Indian Airlines aircraft, hijacked by five armed men - reportedly Muslims - and held for a week at Kandahar in southern Afghanistan.

Security officials in Kashmir had warned the federal government against trading any militants for the hostages as it would encourage further unrest in Kashmir. "The militants' release is going to give a morale boost to those who dance to the tune of Pakistan and lead to more trouble in Kashmir," the state chief minister, Mr Farooq Abdullah, said. Mr Abdullah had argued against releasing the jailed rebels, but was overruled by the Indian Prime Minister, Mr Atal Behari Vajpayee, and his Hindu nationalist-led government.

India holds Pakistan responsible for the Christmas Eve hijack and for providing sanctuary to the hijackers and the freed militants, an allegation that is denied.

Mr Vajpayee yesterday said Pakistan was "squarely" behind the hijacking and called upon the international community to declare it a "terrorist state".

New Delhi also accuses Pakistan - which controls a third of Kashmir and lays claim to the rest - of arming and training Kashmiri militants. Islamabad rejects the charge, claiming it provides only diplomatic and moral support to Kashmir's insurgency.

Meanwhile, news reports yesterday revealed that the Crisis Management Group set up to deal with last week's hijack was in total chaos as the seized Airbus A-300 landed in the border city of Amritsar in northern Punjab state.

The Indian Express newspaper said not only did the senior officials manning the Crisis Group not have the telephone numbers of senior police and military officers in Punjab, but they were also ill-equipped with maps of the region.

Other officials said National Security Guard commandos standing by to fly to Amritsar to deal with the crisis could not take off from Delhi as no negotiator was immediately available to talk to the hijackers.

Agencies add:

Pakistan has assured the United States that it will act in compliance with international aviation agreements and arrest the hijackers of the Indian Airlines jet should they be found on its soil, a US official said yesterday.

"Pakistan has told us that it will meet its obligations under the international convention to apprehend the hijackers and bring them to justice," State Department spokesman James Rubin told reporters.

Meanwhile, Indian mortars fired on Pakistani-ruled Kashmir yesterday, killing at least three people and injuring seven, Pakistani officials said. Officials at Muzaffarabad, capital of Pakistan's side of the disputed region, said a village mosque in the Leepa valley was hit in an unprovoked attack across the UN-monitored Line of Control, the de facto Kashmiri border.

The Pakistani officials said three people in Chanian village, 90km south-west of Muzaffarabad, were killed by one of a dozen or more mortar attacks by India.