July 5, 2005

Six attackers killed in raid on Indian holy site

By Sharat Pradhan

LUCKNOW, India (Reuters) - Indian police killed five gunmenwho attacked a religious site in northern India on Tuesday thatis claimed by both Hindus and Muslims and is a flashpoint forsectarian violence, while a sixth attacker blew himself up.

The unidentified gunmen raided a complex which houses amakeshift temple to Hindu God-king Ram which was built over a16th-century mosque torn down by a Hindu mob in 1992.

Tensions over the site in the town of Ayodhya, about 600 km(375 miles) southeast of New Delhi. have caused widespreadriots in the past and security forces were alerted across thecountry to prevent trouble after Tuesday's raid.

Hardline Hindus, accused of destroying the mosque in 1992,condemned the incident. The nationalist Bharatiya Janata Partyannounced a nationwide protest against the act on Wednesday.

No group claimed responsibility but the right-wing ShivSena party blamed the raid on Islamic militant groups they saidwere supported by neighboring Pakistan. Activists from theparty burned a Pakistani flag in India's financial hub Bombay.

The six attackers arrived by car and an explosives-ladenjeep. One blew up the jeep, killing himself, next to a tall,yellow iron railing fence around the 80 acre (30 hectare)complex, officials said.

"The body was in shreds," local college teacher V.N. Aroratold Reuters by telephone.

That blast ripped open a hole in the fence through whichthe five gunmen entered the complex, firing at police inside.They were killed after nearly two hours of fighting, officialssaid.

"It looked like very powerful explosives were used tocreate a passage into the complex. All the attackers werewearing black trousers and shirts which made them look likecommandos," said Arora.

Television footage showed the charred shell of the jeep,with its top and back missing, next to the complex. Nearby onthe pavement was a charred, severed arm.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh appealed for calm.

"It is fortunate that the attack was foiled and theattackers were killed during the shootout," he said in astatement. "It is also fortunate that no damage occurred to thephysical structures at the site of the incident."


Home ministry officials said they had general informationthat important facilities and religious sites around thecountry could be targeted and states had been alerted about it.

"Obviously it was a militant group which launched theghastly attack ... their identity is being established. Theinformation is they were not locally from Ayodhya," HomeSecretary V.K. Duggal told a news conference.

One of the attackers was a suspected suicide bomber withexplosives strapped to his body, half of which was apparentlyblown off during the shootout, a Uttar Pradesh official said.

Five automatic rifles and three grenades were recoveredfrom the dead men, he added.

Hindu groups say the mosque was built by Islamic invaderson the spot where they believe Ram -- one of Hinduism's mostrevered deities -- was born thousands of years ago.

"It's not a symbolic attack but a very serious attack,"said BJP chief Lal Krishna Advani, who led the campaign for aRam temple on the disputed site in Ayodhya in the early 1990s."The reaction to this attack should be proportionate."

Pakistan condemned the attack. "Pakistan is againstterrorism in all its forms," a foreign ministry spokesman said.

Hizbul Mujahideen, a militant group fighting against Indianrule in Kashmir, said Hindu groups orchestrated the attack.

"The attack is a deep conspiracy to worsen relationsbetween Hindus and Muslims. The attack is the handiwork ofhardline Hindu groups," a man who identified himself as aHizbul commander told a Kashmiri news service.

The demolition of the mosque in 1992 triggered nationwideriots in which 3,000 people died, the worst religious clashessince the bloodletting that followed independence and partitionof British colonial India into Hindu-majority India and IslamicPakistan in 1947.

However, Ayodhya, an ancient town of hundreds of templesand narrow, winding streets infested with monkeys, has itselfbeen largely peaceful since the 1992 turmoil.

News of the attack hurt Indian shares, which fell as far as7,249.55 points after hitting a record high of 7,308.72 inearly trade. The main Bombay index recovered briefly but closed0.78 percent down at 7,220.25 points.