- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 26, 2003

BOMBAY, India — A pair of car bombs ripped through lunchtime crowds in India’s financial capital, Bombay, yesterday, killing 46 persons and wreaking havoc at a crowded jewelry market and a popular historic landmark. More than 150 people were wounded.

Police Commissioner Ranjit Sharma blamed India’s longtime rival, Pakistan, saying suspicion in the blast fell on Islamist militant groups “let loose by the enemy country.”

The groups were the focus of the investigation, but victims from the explosions were almost certain to include both Muslims and Hindus.

The bombs were hidden in the trunks of two taxis and exploded within five minutes of each other, police said. Several people, including one taxi driver, were being interrogated. No one immediately claimed responsibility for the bombings.

The timing raised concerns that the blasts were linked to a dispute over a religious site in the northern city of Ayodhya claimed by both Hindus and Muslims that had been the source of much bloodshed in the past. The bombings came hours after the release of a long-awaited archaeological report on the site that itself showed divisions over the site’s history.

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

The reference to Pakistan could increase tension between the nuclear-armed neighbors at a time when the two countries are taking steps to improve relations. Pakistan has condemned the attacks.

United News of India reported that police had found nine detonators late yesterday inside a rail tunnel 75 miles north of Bombay on the tracks between Kasara and Igatpuri stations.

The rail tunnel was near the city of Nasik, where thousands of Hindu pilgrims were gathered for the Kumbh Mela religious festival, Agence France-Presse reported.

Early today, police declared a special alert in New Delhi and several other cities as police checked vehicles, stepped up street patrols and urged citizens to be on guard for bombs.

In a cramped shoe store in a corner of the jewelry market, Hindu shop owner Tilak Raj mourned the death of his Muslim employee, Abdul Mullah.

“He had just left the shop and was sitting under a tree when the buildings shook,” Mr. Raj said. Like many witnesses, he described torn and dismembered limbs strewn by the blast in the narrow road lined with shops. The street was littered with shattered glass and metal and the slippers left by crowds trampling each other to flee.

Pakistan, which fought three wars with India and came close to a fourth last year, quickly condemned the attacks as “an act of terrorism.”

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

New Delhi accuses Pakistan of supporting militants, which Islamabad denies. Indian police said no direct evidence links those groups, or Pakistan, to yesterday’s bombings.

President Bush strongly condemned the bombings. “Acts of terror are intended to sow fear and chaos among free peoples,” Mr. Bush said in a statement released in Crawford, Texas, where he was staying at his ranch. “I hope that the perpetrators of these murders will be identified quickly and brought to justice.”

In March, a bomb attack on a Bombay train, which police blamed on Islamist militants, killed 11 persons and wounded 64 others. That explosion came a day after the 10th anniversary of a series of bombings in Bombay that killed more than 250 people in 1993 and were blamed on Islamist militants seeking to avenge Muslim deaths in the riots that followed the mosque’s razing.

The attacks appeared aimed more at the city itself than at members of a particular religion.

One of the bombs exploded at the Gateway of India, a historic landmark and tourist attraction built by India’s former British colonizers to commemorate the 1911 visit of King George V. The massive arch is often host to outdoor concerts and is a popular lunchtime eating spot for both Hindus and Muslims.

The other blast was at the crowded neighborhood of jewelry stores, where many shops are owned by Hindus but where many of the artisans are Muslims.

“All kinds of people work here — Hindus, Muslims and Christians,” said Ali Asghar, 24, a student whose father works in a bank near the jewelry market. “This is not about religion.”

But his father feared Muslims would be blamed and that anti-Muslim riots could follow.

“I don’t want to leave Bombay. Where would we go? We feel safe here,” said Mohammed Asghar.

Two persons died overnight, increasing the death toll to 46, the police control room said. Javed Ahmed, a police commissioner for Bombay, said at least 150 people were injured.

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