March 7, 2006

Fifteen killed in blasts in Indian holy city

By Sharat Pradhan

LUCKNOW, India (Reuters) - At least 15 people were killed
and scores wounded in a series of explosions which hit the
Hindu pilgrimage city of Varanasi in northern India within a
span of 45 minutes on Tuesday, police said.

One explosion occurred in the packed Sankat Mochan temple
and two blasts rocked one of the city's main railway stations,
a federal interior ministry official told Reuters.

"Fifteen people have died and about 60 are injured. The
blasts were pretty big and I do not rule out a terrorist hand
behind it," Navneet Sikera, Varanasi's police chief, told

The three explosions occurred between 6 p.m. and 6.45 p.m.,
police said. A bomb was also recovered from a residential area
and was being defused, they added.

"There was a very loud noise and all my men rushed to the
spot," said Jabir Ali, a police inspector at Varanasi's
cantonment railway station.

"We have emptied the station and are checking it. We have
stopped trains bound for Delhi," he said by phone.

No group claimed responsibility for the blasts and
officials said it was too early to pin blame. But most previous
attacks on Hindu temples in India have been blamed on Islamic

Authorities ordered increased security across northern
India to prevent any clashes between the country's majority
Hindus and minority Muslims.

"I cannot say which outfit was responsible for the ghastly
attack but since one of the places of attack is a temple it has
a potential of creating suspicion and tension among different
communities," said federal Home (Interior) Secretary V.K.

Temple-studded Varanasi, 670 km (415 miles) southeast of
New Delhi, is on the banks of the Ganges river in Uttar Pradesh
state and is one of Hinduism's holiest cities.

Hindus believe that dying in Varanasi, being cremated on
the banks of the Ganges and the ashes immersed in the river
ensures release from the cycle of rebirth. Many elderly and ill
people come to the city if they believe they are close to


"The prime minister has appealed for people to remain calm.
The government is dealing with the situation and people should
maintain peace," Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's spokesman

Home Minister Shivraj Patil said the incident was "an
attempt by desperate elements to disturb communal harmony and

Television pictures showed a large pool of blood mixed with
glass shards at one of the blast sites. Angry locals were
shouting slogans, although it was not clear who they were

Workers at one local hospital made repeated announcements
over loudspeakers for volunteers to donate blood.

The Sankat Mochan temple, one of India's most ancient, is
dedicated to Hinduism's monkey god Hanuman, and its name means
"deliverer from troubles."

The temple is filled with people on Tuesdays as it is
considered particularly holy by devotees of Hanuman.

The attack sparked fears of sectarian strife in Uttar
Pradesh, India's most populous state, which has a history of
Hindu-Muslim clashes and has also been a target of Islamist
militants in the past.

Last July, unidentified gunmen stormed Ayodhya, another
holy site in the state and a tinderbox for Hindu-Muslim
violence for decades.

All six attackers, who police said were Islamist militants
fighting Indian rule in Kashmir, were killed in a two-hour
gunfight with police guarding the site.

In October last year, three powerful bombs ripped through
packed markets in New Delhi killing at least 66 people and
wounding more than 100.

The coordinated blasts happened ahead of the biggest Hindu
and Muslim festivals and ignited tensions between old rivals
India and Pakistan.

(Additional reporting by Palash Kumar, Shailendra
Bhatnagar, Surojit Gupta and Mark Williams in NEW DELHI)