SRINAGAR, India – The death toll from a car bombing on a paramilitary convoy in Indian-controlled Kashmir has climbed to 41, becoming the single deadliest attack in the divided region’s volatile history, security officials said Friday.
A local Kashmiri militant rammed an explosive-laden van into the convoy along a key highway Thursday. In addition to the dead, the attack wounded nearly two dozen other soldiers, India’s paramilitary Central Reserve Police Force spokesman Sanjay Sharma said.
The attack is ratcheting up already hostile tensions between India and Pakistan, who both administer parts of the disputed territory but each claim it entirely. India has blamed Pakistan for supporting the bombing, while Islamabad cautioned India not to link it to the attack.
India’s Finance Minister Arun Jaitley announced Friday that New Delhi was withdrawing the most favored nation trade status given to Pakistan and would take all possible diplomatic steps “to ensure the complete isolation from international community of Pakistan of which incontrovertible evidence is available of having a direct hand in this gruesome terrorist incident.”
He said Home Minister Rajnath Singh would visit Kashmir later Friday and review security situation there, and warned that they will ensure “those who have committed this heinous act of terrorism and those who have supported it actively are made to pay a heavy cost.”
Rebels have been fighting Indian control since 1989, but the Muslim-majority region has experienced renewed attacks and repeated public protests in recent years as a new generation of Kashmiri rebels, especially in the southern parts of the region, has challenged New Delhi’s rule with a mixture of violence and social media.
Officials said the militant in Thursday’s attack drove into a bus traveling in the convoy as it reached Lethpora, a town outside Srinagar. Police said the bus was destroyed and at least five other vehicles were damaged.
“The blast was so powerful that one cannot recognize whether the vehicle was a bus or a truck. Just pieces of mangled steel remain,” Sharma said.
Videos circulated by local news groups showed ambulances rushing to the site and people running as smoke billowed from the damaged vehicles. Debris and body parts littered the road.
The Greater Kashmir newspaper reported that militant group Jaish-e-Mohammed claimed responsibility. A pre-recorded video circulated on social media sites showed the purported attacker in combat clothes and surrounded by guns and grenades.
Indian Prime Minister Modi condemned the attack in a speech at a government function Friday saying India would give “a crushing response.”
“Our neighboring country thinks such terror attacks can weaken us, but their plans will not materialize,” he said. He said government forces have been “given total freedom” to tackle militants.
Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry said the country condemns acts of violence anywhere in the world, and denied any involvement.
“We strongly reject any insinuation by elements in the Indian media and government that seek to link the attack to Pakistan without investigations,” it said in a statement.
The U.S., however, specifically singled out Pakistan in its statement condemning the attack.
“The United States calls on Pakistan to end immediately the support and safe haven provided to all terrorist groups operating on its soil, whose only goal is to sow chaos, violence, and terror in the region,” the statement from the White House press secretary’s office said.
It said the attack strengthened U.S. resolve to bolster counterterrorism cooperation with India.
India and Pakistan have fought three wars since gaining independence from Britain in 1947 and regularly exchange fire along their highly militarized border in Kashmir.
Kashmir experienced many car bombings from 2000 through 2005 that inflicted high casualties on Indian troops. The attacks prompted Indian authorities to procure bombproof armored vehicles for soldiers operating in the region.
Indian soldiers are ubiquitous in Kashmir and local residents make little secret of their fury toward their presence in the Himalayan region.
Most Kashmiris support the rebels’ demand that the territory be united either under Pakistani rule or as an independent country, while also participating in civilian street protests against Indian control.
Since 1989, about 70,000 people have been killed in the uprising and the ensuing Indian crackdown. Last year’s death toll was the highest since 2009, with at least 260 militants, 160 civilians and 150 government forces killed.
Associated Press writer Ashok Sharma in New Delhi contributed to this report.
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