Militants target home of Kashmir's chief minister
Gunmen holed up in shopping centre after grenade attack
Gunmen tried to enter the official residence of Kashmir's Chief Minister, Mufti Mohammed Saeed, yesterday morning, killing two security personnel and injuring passers-by, in an audacious attack that will further poison already toxic Indo-Pakistan relations,
After lobbing grenades at the heavily guarded house in Srinagar, the assailants were forced to run for cover when security forces returned fire. They fled into a small shopping complex across the road, where about 100 people were trapped as several men exchanged gunfire with security forces.
Police and troops evacuated some of the civilians and seized control of the ground floor of the complex but had still not caught the militants. Two previously unknown groups claimed responsibility for the attack. But the Deputy Home Minister, L.K. Advani, said an outfit called al-Mansurian, an offshoot of the banned, Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba, was to blame.
'With this attack, it is clear that the policies of our neighbour have not changed,' said Mr Advani, referring to India's claim that Pakistan sends terrorists into Kashmir to wage war in India's only Muslim-majority state. The issue of cross-border terrorism is the biggest stumbling block to better relations between the two nuclear-armed rivals.
Earlier this month, the two countries lashed out at each other over Kashmir during a United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York, souring ties which had previously been improving.
Asked what he thought the impact of the latest attack would be, the leader of the opposition National Conference in Kashmir, Omar Abdullah, said: 'After New York, it's hard to see how things could possibly get any worse, barring another mobilisation of our armies on the border.'
Following a terrorist attack on the Indian parliament in December 2001, both countries mobilised a million soldiers and came close to war last year over Kashmir.
'These groups want to make sure there is no peaceful resolution in Kashmir and show that they can still strike at will. By choosing the heart of Srinagar city, it was a symbolic gesture to show no area is safe,' Mr Abdullah said.
The security agencies had urged Mr Saeed - who has just completed a year in office - not to live in the house that was attacked because it is situated alongside two major roads that cannot be cordoned off. But he refused out of a desire to show Kashmiris that he wanted to live among them.
It is not clear whether Mr Saeed was in the house at the time; some reports said he was inside and quickly left by a back door when the firing began, while other sources said he had left home an hour earlier.
The popularity of Mr Saeed's 'healing touch' policy has been anathema to separatist militants who want him to fail.
His approach is aimed at persuading terrorists to give up violence and getting the Indian government to talk to separatist groups so that 13 years of civil strife can finally end.