Indian leaders condemn deadly attack on Hindu pilgrims

SRINAGAR, India: Indian leaders and Kashmiri separatists united Tuesday to condemn an attack on a bus that killed seven Hindu pilgrims and threatened to exacerbate tensions in the country's only Muslim-majority state.

Six women and a man died when unidentified gunmen opened fire late Monday on a bus carrying Hindus on the annual pilgrimage to a Himalayan cave revered as the abode of the god Shiva.

It was the worst such attack in the divided Himalayan region since 2000 when gunmen fired on a group of Hindu pilgrims, killing 32 people including two police officers.

The chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir state said the attack was a "blot on all Muslims and Kashmiris".

"Pilgrims come to Kashmir every year for the yatra (pilgrimage) despite all difficulties. And seven people died today. I have no words to condemn it," Mehbooba Mufti Sayeed told reporters as she visited wounded victims in the hospital.

Tens of thousands of Hindus from all over India travel to Kashmir every year to visit a phallus-shaped ice formation in the Amarnath caves that is worshipped as a symbol of Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction.

The caves, which lie 3,900m high and can only be reached on foot or on horseback, are seen as a symbol of religious unity in the volatile region.

The ice formation is said to have been discovered in 1850 by a Muslim shepherd who became a custodian of the shrine, along with two Hindu priests.

Separatist leaders in Kashmir condemned the attack, which they said, "goes against the very grain of Kashmiri ethos".

"The annual Amarnath Yatra has been going on peacefully for centuries and is part of our yearly rhythm and will remain so," they said in a joint statement.

Tensions were already running high in Indian-administered Kashmir, where militant groups have for decades been fighting for independence or a merger with neighbouring Pakistan.

The troubled region had been relatively calm until last July when government forces killed a hugely popular rebel leader, kicking off months of violent protests against Indian rule.

No group has yet claimed responsibility for the attack on the pilgrims.

Some Indian media quoted the Kashmir police chief blaming pro-Pakistan militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba, which has been involved in a number of deadly attacks in India.

But a spokesman for the group denied responsibility.

Authorities said the two-month pilgrimage season would continue after the attack on the bus, which was not part of the official convoy carrying pilgrims.

Reports said the bus was travelling after dark and without the official security usually provided to pilgrims.

Most of the victims were from the western state of Gujarat where police said they were on high alert for protests.

A demonstration was also planned in Mumbai, the capital of western Maharashtra state, where some of the pilgrims were from. — AFP