- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 7, 2006

NEW DELHI — A series of coordinated bombings rocked a packed railway station and a crowded Hindu temple yesterday in the holy city of Varanasi, killing at least 20 persons and injuring dozens in an attack that raised fears of communal violence.

Cities across India were put on high alert as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh appealed for calm, according to his spokesman, Sanjaya Baru.

“Stern action will be initiated against all those found involved,” said Mulayam Singh Yadav, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, the state where the blasts occurred.

The attacks, which injured at least 62 persons, occurred only days after Hindus and Muslims fought in the streets of Lucknow, leaving four persons dead, during a visit to India by President Bush.

The next day, Hindus looted Muslim shops and burned vehicles in the coastal resort of Goa in a dispute over a mosque demolition.

It was not clear whether the bombings yesterday were the work of anti-government or anti-Hindu militant groups or were connected to Mr. Bush’s visit.

Senior state official Kamlesh Pathak said two unexploded bombs — one hidden in a pressure cooker and the other in a backpack — were found at Varanasi’s Godowalia market and defused by police.

The Press Trust of India news agency reported that security officials found four unexploded bombs at a bathing platform on the banks of the Ganges, a few miles away.

The blast at the Sankat Mochan temple went off near dusk, when the shrine was crowded with Hindus making special Tuesday offerings to the monkey-god Hanuman, said police inspector Madan Mohan Pande.

At least 22 persons were wounded in the temple blast, police said. Televised footage showed debris, body parts and blood covering the temple floor.

Most witness accounts of the blasts at the railway station said one bomb went off either in or next to a train car and another near the ticket counter in the waiting room.

At least 40 persons were injured there, the majority seriously, Mr. Pathak said.

Varanasi, about 450 miles east of Delhi, is Hinduism’s holiest city and ordinarily is filled with pilgrims visiting temples and bathing in the holy waters of the Ganges, which runs through the city. It also is a popular spot with foreign tourists, especially backpackers.

Hindus believe that dying in Varanasi, being cremated on the banks of the Ganges and having one’s ashes immersed in the river ensures release from the cycle of rebirth. Many elderly and ill people come to the city if they believe they are close to death.

Although Varanasi is a largely Hindu city, it also has a sizable Muslim population.

Hindu-Muslim violence rocked western India in 2002 after 60 Hindu pilgrims were killed in a train fire in Gujarat state initially blamed on Muslims. That rioting left more than 1,000 people dead over three months.

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