- The Washington Times - Monday, August 25, 2003

BOMBAY, India — Car bombs exploded at a crowded jewelry market and a historic landmark in Bombay on Monday, killing at least 44 people, wounding 150 others and shaking buildings in India’s financial capital.

The bombs, hidden in the trunks of two taxis, blew up within five minutes of each other, police said. Several people were being interrogated, including one taxi driver.

Police were focusing their investigation on Muslim militant groups.

“There are many jehadi groups out, let loose by the enemy country,” said Ranjit Sharma, a police commissioner. Jehadi groups are operated by Islamic militants.

The “enemy country” was a clear reference to Pakistan, India’s longtime rival. Such an accusation could threaten to increase tension between the nuclear-armed neighbors, though Pakistani officials quickly denounced the attack as “wanton targeting of civilians.”

Sharma specifically mentioned the Students Islamic Movement of India, or SIMI, a militant students’ group outlawed in September 2001, and Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, one of more than a dozen Islamic rebel groups fighting Indian security forces in Kashmir since 1989, seeking independence for the divided Himalayan province or its merger with Muslim dominated Pakistan.

No one immediately claimed responsibility for the lunchtime bombings, which came hours after the release of a long-anticipated archaeological report on a religious site in northern India claimed by both Hindus and Muslims. The dispute has been linked to previous bombings.

However, the attacks appeared aimed more at the city itself - the nation’s financial heart - than at members of a particular religion. Stock prices plunged after the blast reports. The benchmark index of Bombay Stock Exchange, the Sensex, closed at 4,005, down 119 points or 3 percent.

One of the bombs exploded at the Gateway of India, a well-known historic landmark and popular lunchtime eating spot frequented by both Hindus and Muslims. The other was at a crowded neighborhood of jewelry stores, where many shops are owned by Hindus but many of the artisans are Muslims.

“The explosions were aimed at targeting the economic activity of the city, as well as Bombay as a tourist destination,” said Sushil Kumar Shinde, chief minister of Maharashtra, the state where Bombay is located.

“The blasts have thrown up a challenge to the resilience of this city,” he said at a press conference, urging people not to panic.

Telephone lines were jammed and mobile phone services briefly crashed as panicked residents called family and friends. Police issued security alerts for Bombay and the Indian capital, New Delhi, calling policemen back from leave in case of further trouble.

The death toll totaled 44 by early evening, Sharma said. Javed Ahmed, a police commissioner for Bombay, said at least 150 people were injured.

Asked if the explosions could have been to avenge killings last year in the western state of Gujarat - violence sparked by reaction to the disputed religious site - Ahmed said: “It could be that.”

Pakistan, with whom India has engaged in decades of bloodshed, condemned the attacks. The neighbors have fought three wars - two over the divided region of Kashmir - and nearly started a fourth last year. New Delhi accuses Pakistan of supporting militants, which Islamabad denies.

“We deplore these attacks and we sympathize with the victims and their families,” Pakistan Foreign Ministry spokesman Masood Khan said. “I think that such wanton targeting of civilians should be condemned in the strongest possible terms.”

The carnage shocked even to those accustomed to bloodshed.

“I have never seen anything so horrible,” said S. Manoj, a doctor at Bombay’s J.J. Hospital. “It was just body parts, some with their abdominal organs hanging out, some with no faces at all. The bodies were all burnt.”

He said some of the injured had been trampled in stampedes after the explosions, and came in with multiple broken bones.

The explosion terrified Bombay residents.

“The building we were in shook and we heard a loud noise,” said Ingrid Alva, a public relations consultant who works near the gateway. “I rushed out and saw the crowds at the Gateway of India … We saw some body parts lying around, before we were told to move away by the police.”

The city quickly turned out to support the victims. More than 100 people donated blood for the wounded at J.J. Hospital.

The explosions came just hours after the release of the archaeological report on the religious site in the northern town of Ayodhya.

In March, a bomb attack on a Bombay train, which police blamed on Islamic militants, killed 11 people and wounded 64 others. That explosion came a day after the 10th anniversary of a series of bombings in Bombay - also blamed on Islamic militants - which killed more than 250 people and injured 1,000.

Police say those bombings were in retaliation for the 1992 destruction by Hindus mobs of the 16th-century Ayodhya mosque, and to avenge Muslim deaths in riots that followed. A bloody attack on Hindus who want to build a temple at the site of the destroyed mosque set off revenge rioting in western Gujarat state that killed more than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, in early 2002.

Some Hindus claim the mosque was built centuries ago on the ruins of a Hindu temple that marked the birthplace of their supreme god, Rama.

The report, issued by the government archaeological agency, indicated there had been some sort of ancient structure at the site, lawyers for both sides said, though they disagreed on whether it said there had actually been a temple.

The report was released to lawyers and has not been made available to the public or the media.

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