Amarnath Yatra attack: Cops say LeT responsible, Kashmir unites against terror

Opposition parties blamed the government for not doing enough to stop the militant strike on a bus carrying 61 pilgrims.

Kashmir Turmoil Updated: Jul 12, 2017 09:06 IST
HT Correspondents
HT Correspondents
Hindustan Times, Srinagar
Amarnath,Amarnath Yatra 2017,Amarnath Yatra
A security force personnel (right) checks the bag of a man near the base camp of Amarnath, in Langanbal village, south Kashmir’s Anantnag district.(Reuters Photo)

Police blamed Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba on Tuesday for killing seven Amarnath Yatra pilgrims overnight amid mounting evidence of security lapses in the hours before the attack that triggered widespread condemnation across the country.

Opposition parties blamed the government for not doing enough to stop the militant strike on a bus carrying 61 pilgrims – most of them from Gujarat -- and deputy chief minister Nirmal Singh said the authorities will investigate how the attack occurred despite prior intelligence warnings.

Police sources said security forces had recovered empty cartridges and underbarrel grenade launchers from the site of the attack — all with Pakistani markings.

Locals said six persons, including two brothers, were detained for questioning on Monday night.

In Delhi and in Srinagar, high-level review meetings were held. Home minister Rajnath Singh was briefed by national security adviser Ajit Doval, the chiefs of the Intelligence Bureau and R&AW, while in Kashmir, governor NN Vohra and chief minister Mehbooba Mufti met officials separately.

A top Kashmir police officer pinned the blame on Lashkar-e-Taiba after initial investigations, and named a “Pakistani militant” Ismail as being behind the attack that also injured 19 people. “The investigation is on,” inspector general of police Muneer Khan told Hindustan Times. But the outfit denied any role and called the attack “reprehensible”.

Read | After Amarnath yatra terror attack in Anantnag, Army chief in Kashmir to review security situation

Meanwhile, a fresh batch of 3,200-odd pilgrims left for the remote Himalayan cave on Tuesday. The deceased and most of the injured were sent back to their homes on a special plane. Army chief general Bipin Rawat arrived in Srinagar on Tuesday to review security.

Throughout the day, the focus remained on several unanswered questions that pointed to holes in an otherwise elaborate security arrangement, comprising more than 40,000 personnel, that cloaks the annual pilgrimage.

The bus, with a Gujarat number plate, was not registered with the Amarnath shrine board and had left Srinagar for Jammu at 4.30pm. The cut-off time for vehicles on the Amarnath route is 5.30pm. There was no official answer as to why the bus, attacked at about 8.20pm, was allowed to travel for more than three hours on a national highway without any security check posts stopping the vehicle.

Senior officials told HT that security was usually withdrawn at 5.30pm – a decision that likely made the bus a sitting duck for terrorists. Om Sai Travels, the operator of the bus, was not registered to any of the tour and travel operators’ associations in the state.

“This is a grave and unacceptable security lapse. The PM needs to accept responsibility and never allow it to happen again,” Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi tweeted as Jammu and Kashmir erupted in protests and condemnation.

Both Jammu and Kashmir regions saw noisy protests against the killings that chief minister Mufti described as a “blot on all Muslims and Kashmiris”.

Many on social media changed their profile photos to “I condemn’’ as traders, businessmen and civil society organised a protest in the heart of Srinagar in Lal Chowk. “This is a moment for us to define ourselves… No terror & murder in our names,’’ former chief minister Omar Abdullah said in a tweet. Separatist leaders also condemned the attack.

In Jammu, hundreds of protesters shouted angry slogans against the militants and burned a faceless effigy meant to represent both terrorism and Pakistan, which India blames for supporting the militants.

Many shops and businesses were also shuttered in the region, after trade unions and political parties called for a protest strike. In Ahmedabad, crowds gathered for a sit-in to protest all religious violence, while peace activists planned a candlelight vigil in New Delhi on Tuesday night.

Security person stand guard after militants opened fire on the Amarnath pilgrims. (PTI Photo)

Police said the attack began when gunmen unleashed a hail of bullets on an armoured police vehicle and a police patrol. Police returned fire in both incidents and the gunmen responded, with bullets striking the bus carrying the pilgrims returning from paying obeisance at the shrine.

Some of the people who survived the attack recounted moments of terror that lasted for around 20 seconds as the gunmen started firing in the dark.

“Phataphat maarne lage goli, andhere mein kuch samaj nahi aaya (They started firing indiscriminately. We could not fathom anything in the dark),’’ Baghimani Thakur from Palgad in Maharastra, said.

Survivors told HT the driver kept driving the bus as it was being struck with bullets near Anantnag town on the main highway linking Kashmir with the rest of India.

(Additional reporting by bureaux in New Delhi, Jammu and Ahmedabad)

First Published: Jul 11, 2017 23:53 IST