March 8, 2006

India on alert to prevent trouble after bomb blasts

By Sharat Pradhan

VARANASI, India (Reuters) - Armed police in India mounted
vigil in Varanasi and Hindu groups called for a strike but the
streets of the ancient holy city where bomb blasts killed 15
people were calm on Wednesday despite fears of a backlash.

Tuesday's blasts in Varanasi, one of the holiest pilgrimage
centers for the country's majority Hindus, also wounded dozens
of people and came barely a week before Holi, the Hindu
festival of colors.

It sparked fears of sectarian violence as some police
officers suspected the attack to be the work of Islamist
militants fighting against Indian rule in disputed Kashmir.

The attack also came just days after clashes between Hindus
and Muslims in another city not far from Varanasi.

But there were no reports of trouble on Wednesday as an
estimated 3,000 police and special anti-riot forces were
deployed in Varanasi alone, police said.

"The city is peaceful. We have taken all precautions. There
have been no reports of any untoward incidents," said K.L.
Meena, Varanasi's inspector-general of police.

"There have been no arrests so far and police parties are
conducting raids at various places since last night," he said.

Analysts and locals said they did not expect the customary,
knee-jerk violent reactions because most Indians were weary of

Meena said there were only two bomb blasts and not three as
police had earlier said.

The first bomb went off in the packed, centuries-old Sankat
Mochan temple where hundreds of devotees of the Hindu
monkey-god Hanuman had gathered for evening prayers.

The second exploded at the city's cantonment railway
station. Police had said on Tuesday that two bombs exploded at
the station.

Yashpal Singh, the police chief of Uttar Pradesh state,
where Varanasi is located, said he suspected Pakistan-based
Islamist militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba of involvement.

Police said they had shot dead one Lashkar man in Lucknow,
Uttar Pradesh's capital, and TV channels said two Lashkar
militants were killed in New Delhi, but it was not known if
they were connected to the Varanasi blasts.


"He was instrumental in carrying out serial blasts in
several places. We are trying to find out whether he was
connected to the Varanasi blasts," Varanasi's police chief
Navneet Sikera said referring to the Lucknow militant.

Lashkar, which is outlawed in Pakistan, has been blamed for
several violent attacks across India in the past, including one
on another Hindu holy site in Uttar Pradesh last year.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh urged people to remain calm
after the blasts, but Hindu groups allied to the opposition
Bharatiya Janata Party called for a general strike in the state
on Wednesday to protest against the blasts.

Authorities said they had shut down schools and colleges as
a precaution, but a Reuters reporter said traffic on the
streets of the ancient city appeared normal.

"People are moving around. Puja (worship) is going on in
the temples. There is no problem now," said 65-year-old
housewife Prem Lata.

Local doctor Ashok Rai said he would open his clinic
despite the strike.

"There is no tension. It's nothing related to Hindus and
Muslims. It is a terrorist incident and people are treating it
like that. Everybody is sad but life goes on," Rai said.

Temple-studded Varanasi, 670 km (415 miles) southeast of
New Delhi, is on the banks of the holy Ganges river.

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 here if they believe they are close to death.

The United States condemned the incident.

Indian shares were expected to consolidate on Wednesday.

"Sentiment will turn cautious ... but I don't see any major
damage taking place on the indices. The overseas and domestic
interest in India remains high," said Sanjay Dutt, director at
Quantum Securities.

(Additional reporting by Surojit Gupta, Kamil Zaheer and
Shailendra Bhatnagar in New DelhiI)