India: explosions rock Hindu holy city

From AP, March 7, links added:

VARANASI – Explosions rocked a packed railway station and crowded Hindu temple Tuesday in Hinduism’s holiest city, and at least 12 people were killed and dozens injured, officials said.

Authorities were scrambling to determine what caused the blasts, but political leaders suggested they were bombings. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh condemned the explosions, but appealed for calm.

A top state official promised stern action against those responsible. Cities across India were put on high alert.

The apparent attack on Hinduism’s holiest site came days after Muslims and Hindus battled each other in the nearby city of Lucknow, and angry Hindus looted Muslim shops and burned vehicles in the coastal resort of Goa.

It raised fears of a repeat of Hindu-Muslim violence that rocked western India in 2002 after 60 Hindus pilgrims were killed in a train fire initially blamed on Muslims. That rioting left more than 1,000 people dead over three months.

The chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, the state where Tuesday’s blasts occurred, condemned the blasts and appealed for restraint. “Stern action will be initiated against all those found involved in the incident,” Mulayam Singh Yadav said in a statement.

At least 10 people died in what appeared to be two bombings at Varanasi’s train station, and two others were killed in another blast at the temple on the banks of the holy Ganges River, said Kamlesh Pathak, a senior official in the city. Police cordoned off both sites.

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

Besides those killed, at least 22 people were wounded, said police official Mohammed Hashmi.

A witness, Nilesh Utpal, said he saw between 25 and 30 wounded people being taken away in ambulances. “There was a big crowd at the temple” when the explosion occurred, he said.

Televised pictures showed one man, his face bloodied, lying on a stretcher. An old woman lay on the floor, holding up her arms to helpers, who pulled her away. Debris, body parts and blood covered the floor of the temple.

Of the two blasts at the city’s railway station, one occurred inside a train car and the other near the ticket counter in the waiting room of the crowded station.

Police bomb disposal experts were entering the temple to determine what caused the blasts, said Hashni.

Pathak, the city official, said at least 40 people were injured, 22 of them seriously.

One witness, Sunil Yadav, described a scene of confusion, with people running and screaming.

“It was a high intensity blast,” a man identified only as Pradeep told the CNN-IBN television station. “After the blast people were running like anything.

Varanasi, 700 kilometres east of New Delhi, is Hinduism’s holiest city and is ordinarily filled with pilgrims visiting temples and bathing in the holy waters of the Ganges River, which runs through the city.

It’s also a popular spot with foreign tourists, especially backpackers.

Home Secretary V. K. Duggal said Tuesday’s blasts were similar to bombings last year in New Delhi, which killed 60 people, although he stopped short of calling the explosions in Varanasi bombings.

Like the Oct. 29 New Delhi blasts – which have been blamed on Islamic militants fighting to wrest predominantly Muslim Kashmir from India – Duggal said the Varanasi explosions occurred within 10 minutes of each other, the Press Trust of India news agency reported.

PTI also reported that security officials found four unexploded bombs at a bathing platform on the banks of Ganga River, a few kilometres from the temple.

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