7 pilgrims killed as militants fire on Amarnath yatris in J-K, Modi calls attack dastardly
At least seven pilgrims returning from the remote Himalayan shrine of Amarnath were shot dead and several wounded when militants fired on their bus as well as a security vehicle in Anantnag district of Kashmir on Monday, police said.
All the victims were from Gujarat, state chief minister Vijay Rupani told reporters, pointing to a possible targeted strike against a chartered bus from that state. Five of the dead were women.
The attack occurred at Batengoo at about 8.20pm when 60-70 pilgrims were returning from Baltal, one of the base camps of the pilgrimage, to Jammu. Batengoo is 65 km south of Srinagar.
Officials said the bus was neither registered with the Amarnath shrine board nor part of a convoy. It was moving after sunset, which is not allowed because of security restrictions.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi condemned the attack as cowardly, saying “India will never get bogged down by such cowardly attacks and evil designs of hate”.
In a series of tweets, he also said: “The attack deserves strongest condemnation from everyone.”
Just weeks ago, intelligence agencies had warned that militants were planning to target 100 policemen and as many Amarnath pilgrims to trigger communal violence, prompting the authorities to deploy more than 40,000 troops to protect the twin routes of the 40-day pilgrimage.
Police said the militants attacked a security check post before moving to target the pilgrims’ bus. They said the toll could rise as some of the 18 wounded were critical. The injured also included several policemen.
SDS Jamwal, inspector general of police in Jammu, said no decision has been taken yet to suspend the yatra from Jammu.
Reacting to the attack, Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi tweeted: “This is a grave & unacceptable security lapse. The PM needs to accept responsibility and never allow it to happen again”.
State chief minister Mehbooba Mufti expressed deep shock and anguish over the killings. “It is a gruesome attack not only on unsuspecting guests but a brazen attack on Kashmir and Kashmiriyat and all of us shall have to rise against this scourge of violence..,” she said.
Kashmiri separatist leaders also condemned the killing. In a joint statement, they said the incident went against the very grain of Kashmiri ethos.
Former chief minister Omar Abdullah tweeted: “The one thing we had all feared this year during the yatra. In spite of recent successes against militants and unprecedented force presence.”
This year, police used drone-mounted surveillance cameras, jammers, dog squads, bullet-proof bunkers, satellite tracking devices and other gadgets to secure the pilgrimage in view of increased militancy and violence in Kashmir.
The base camps in Pahalgam and Baltal are in Anantnag and Ganderbal districts. Situated in a narrow gorge at the farther end of Lidder Valley, Amarnath shrine stands at 3,888 metres, 46km from Pahalgam and 14km from Baltal.
The Amarnath pilgrimage has come under attack by militants three times in the past, including the massacre of 30 people in Pahalgam on August 1, 2000. The government had held the Lashkar-e-Taiba responsible for that attack.
(Additional reporting by Hiral Dave in Gujarat)