March 8, 2006

Indian holy city shuts down in protest over blasts

By Sharat Pradhan

VARANASI, India (Reuters) - India's ancient holy city of
Varanasi shut down on Wednesday in a protest against bomb
blasts in a Hindu temple and a railway station which killed 15
people, but there was no sectarian backlash.

Armed police mounted a strict vigil during the shut down,
called by Hindu groups after Varanasi, one of the holiest
pilgrimage centers for India's majority Hindus, was hit by two
bomb blasts within minutes around dusk on Tuesday.

No one claimed responsibility but some police officers
suspect the attacks to be the work of Islamist militants
fighting against Indian rule in disputed Kashmir.

Authorities quickly ordered police in most of northern
India on alert to prevent any outbreak of Hindu-Muslim clashes.

"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.

Shops and businesses in Varanasi downed shutters and
authorities closed schools and colleges as a precaution.

Groups of angry youths gathered in some main streets and
outside the local university, shouting slogans against the
regional government.

But tensions largely eased after national politicians who
came to Varanasi on Wednesday left the city, witnesses said.

Some businesses like hotels and food kiosks opened toward
the evening, they said.

Many markets in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh state's capital,
were also closed but there were no reports of trouble from
across the state, India's most populous.

Hindu groups blamed the government of Uttar Pradesh, where
Varanasi is located, for ignoring security threats.

"The government is encouraging Islamic terrorism by turning
a blind eye to their activities," said Kailash Kesari, head of
the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party's local unit.

Analysts and locals said although the Hindu community was
targeted, they did not expect the customary, knee-jerk
sectarian tensions because most Indians were weary of violence.

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.

People had also gathered to attend three weddings taking
place in the sprawling complex.


The other bomb exploded at the city's main railway station.

"It was a very unfortunate incident," said Veerbhadra
Singh, the temple's head priest. "But we will not let it stop
worship even for a day."

He said evening prayers would be held as scheduled on

Yashpal Singh, the police chief of Uttar Pradesh, said he
suspected Pakistan-based Islamist militant group

Police said they had shot dead one Lashkar man in Lucknow
overnight and two Lashkar militants were killed in New Delhi,
but it was not known if they were connected to the blasts.

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.

Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Tasnim Aslam
condemned the blasts.

"We know how it feels. We have been on the receiving end,
we have had attacks on our places of worship too. It's
insanity, only an inhuman person would do that," she said.

Security experts said the blasts bore the hallmarks of
Pakistan-based militant groups. BJP leader Lal Krishna Advani
said the blasts were an indication that militant violence had
not abated despite peace talks between India and Pakistan.

India has in the past blamed Pakistani militant groups for
attacks on temples and public places.

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.

Some residents said they would not let the blasts disrupt

"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.

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