Srinagar, India-administered Kashmir – At least 42 Indian forces have been killed in a suicide attack in southern part of India-administered Kashmir, the worst such attack in two decades of Kashmir conflict.
The suspected attacker, a local rebel, rammed his explosives-laden car into a bus carrying paramilitary troopers in Lethpora village near Awantipora along a highway in Pulwama district on Thursday.
The national highway connects Kashmir’s main city of Srinagar with the region’s southern parts.
A senior official, who was not authorised to speak to the media, told Al Jazeera that at least 42 paramilitary personnel were confirmed dead in the attack and over a dozen wounded.
“The casualty in the incident is 42,” the official said, adding that it was the worst ever attack carried out by the rebels. He said car bomb attacks were rare in Kashmir.
The official said buses carrying the paramilitary troopers were returning in a convoy to Srinagar when a Scorpio car rammed into one of the buses.
“The attack happened late afternoon on Thursday. The wounded have been shifted to hospitals. We are still ascertaining the facts,” the official said.
Attack on CRPF personnel in Pulwama is despicable. I strongly condemn this dastardly attack. The sacrifices of our brave security personnel shall not go in vain. The entire nation stands shoulder to shoulder with the families of the brave martyrs. May the injured recover quickly.
— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) February 14, 2019
Images from the site of the blast showed a bus completely burned as dozens of bodies lay scattered on the highway.
“There were arms and hands lying all over. I even saw the brain that had come out of a trooper’s body,” a witness told Al Jazeera.
Vijay Kumar, adviser to the governor of the state, told Al Jazeera, “Thirty-eight to 40 casualties have been caused in the incident.”
A statement issued by the Jammu and Kashmir police said 33 troopers were confirmed dead. “The exact number of casualties is being ascertained,” it said.
“It was the worst attack in 20 years,” a senior police official told Al Jazeera.
Security forces have sealed the entire area and internet services have been suspended in south Kashmir. Media persons have been barred from visiting the blast site.
Pakistan-based rebel group, Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), has claimed responsibility for the attack in a statement to a local news agency.
India has condemned the attack, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi calling it “despicable” and “dastardly”. Home Minister Rajnath Singh is scheduled to visit Kashmir region on Friday to take stock of the situation.
India’s foreign ministry accused Pakistan of harbouring “terrorists” on its territory. “We demand that Pakistan stop supporting terrorists and terror groups operating from their territory and dismantle the infrastructure operated by terrorist outfits to launch attacks in other countries,” it said in a statement.
Pakistan called the attack “a matter of grave concern”.
“We have always condemned acts of violence anywhere in the world. We strongly reject any insinuation by elements in the Indian media and government that seek to link the attack to Pakistan without investigations,” the country’s foreign office said in a statement.
Officials described Thursday’s incident as a “fidayeen” (human bomb) attack, suspected to have been carried out by 20-year-old rebel, Adil Dar, from Pulwama in southern Kashmir.
JeM released a video following the attack, in which Dar purportedly said, “By the time this video reaches you, I will be in heaven … This is my last message for the people of Kashmir.”
Dar reportedly joined the rebels in March last year when he was still in high school, officials said.
Police records accessed exclusively by Al Jazeera said he used to work in a bandsaw workshop, where he used to make wooden boxes. He is described as “not [an] orthodox” Muslim, who did not “offer prayers regularly”.
Dar went missing on March 19 last year. “On that day, he came to his house for having lunch and went back to work, but he did not reach the said place… [and instead] joined militancy,” police records said.
When his whereabouts were not known and he “kept his phone switched off”, the family lodged a complaint with the police on March 23, 2018, according to officials.
Dar’s father, Ghulam Hassan Dar, told Al Jazeera he saw his son “only once after he picked up the gun”.
“In this war, people from both sides die. This politics is being played by leaders. Everyone should rather ask the question why the youth are picking up guns, and that should be addressed,” Dar said from his home in Pulwama’s Gundibagh village.
Time for all to speak up against terrorism.
— Syed Akbaruddin (@AkbaruddinIndia) February 14, 2019
Kashmiri rebels first introduced the “fidayeen” squad in 1999 in the immediate aftermath of a low-intensity war between India and Pakistan in the Himalayan region of Kargil.
Most of the “fidayeen” attacks have been carried out by foreign attackers affiliated with two Pakistan-based outfits, JeM and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), with fewer Kashmiri rebels participating in such raids.
The suicide attacks carried out by “fidayeen” squads against India establishments have worsened India’s frosty relations with its neighbour and rival, Pakistan.
It has been several years since Kashmiri rebels began “fidayeen” attacks, which Indian security officials say are “difficult to prevent as attackers intend to kill and get killed”.
In January last year, two local rebels carried out a similar raid at a military base in the same village at Lethpora, which was claimed by the JeM.
Police had then identified the two rebels as 16-year-old Fardeen Ahmad Khanday and 24-year-old Manzoor Ahmad Baba, both residents of Pulwama.
‘Felt like an earthquake’
A Kashmiri local who was standing at a distance from the site of the Thursday blast said it “felt like an earthquake” had hit the area.
“I felt everything shaking for a moment, then there was smoke. I felt my body was moving and the earth beneath my feet was opening up. It was a very powerful explosion,” the 45-year-old resident, who refused to be identified, told Al Jazeera.
“I walked a little near the spot and there were body parts lying everywhere. It was a bloody scene,” he said.
Another resident Shameema Ashraf, who lives in Lethpora, said there was chaos everywhere. “We were sitting inside our home. We only heard the explosion but did not know what had happened.”
Districts in the southern Kashmir region have remained restive since the killing of the young rebel commander Burhan Wani in 2016.
The highest number of gun battles in the disputed Kashmir region have taken place in these districts, where the rebels have also suffered the highest casualties.
Last year was also Kashmir’s bloodiest since 2009. According to rights group Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society, 528 people were killed in 2018, including 145 civilians.
Thursday’s attack also came at a time when India is preparing for parliamentary elections due in two months.
Anti-India sentiment runs deep in Muslim-majority Kashmir, which is one of the world’s most militarised regions. A majority of residents here support the rebels in their fight against the Indian security forces.
Rebel groups have been fighting since 1989 for India-administered Kashmir to either become independent or merge with Pakistan. India and Pakistan have fought two of their three wars over Kashmir.