March 9, 2006

Indian holy city stands resolute after blasts

By Sharat Pradhan

VARANASI, India (Reuters) - The northern Indian city of
Varanasi showcased its standing as one of the country's most
vibrant pilgrimage centers on Thursday, two days after bomb
blasts killed 15 people and triggered protests.

Markets across the Hindu holy city opened, streets bustled
with traffic and tourists, Indian and foreign, returned to the
ancient bathing ghats and temples by the holy Ganges river a
day after Hindu groups shut the city in protests.

Lashkar-e-Kahar, a little-known Kashmiri Islamist militant
group, called a local news agency in Indian Kashmir and claimed
responsibility for the explosions.

"If India does not stop excesses in Kashmir, we will carry
out more such attacks across India," Abdullah Jabbar, the
group's spokesman, said by telephone.

Security experts said the group was likely a front for
Pakistan-based Islamist militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba, which
is also on top of the police list of suspects.

Police said they would continue to mount vigils to prevent
a communal backlash although, they added, that appeared

"Violence occurs when there is anger," said Mahendra Tanna,
a Varanasi businessman. "The blasts at the temple did not anger
us but made us sad. Which is why there have been no riots.

"How can we associate all this with Muslims? All Muslims
are not bad and all Hindus are not good," said Tanna, a Hindu.

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 prayers and three weddings.

Another bomb then exploded at the city's main railway
station. Police said both bombs were home-made devices placed
in pressure cookers and connected to timers.

They said they were working on sketches of suspects based
on a video shot at one of the weddings at the temple.


Analysts and intelligence officers said that although the
Hindu community was targeted by suspected Islamist militants,
they did not expect trouble because most Indians were weary of
violence and increasingly resilient.

Besides, political groups had largely refrained from
stoking tensions and Varanasi's Muslims had condemned the
blasts and joined Hindus in the general strike on Wednesday,
avoiding a confrontation, they said.

"We are grateful to the people that they have not allowed
this situation to take a communal turn," said Yashpal Singh,
police chief of Uttar Pradesh state where Varanasi is located.

"It is thanks also to the political parties as none of them
tried to give this political color," Singh told Reuters.

A senior Lashkar militant killed by police in Lucknow,
Uttar Pradesh's capital, hours after the blasts was likely
linked to the attack, investigators said.

"We are zeroing in on a Lashkar hand and there definitely
seems to have been a link between the terrorist killed in
Lucknow and the bombs here," said Navneet Sikera, Varanasi's
police chief.

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

Temple-studded Varanasi, 670 km (420 miles) southeast of
New Delhi, is one of India's most ancient cities and is very
popular with foreign tourists interested in Hinduism.

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.

Abhay Pratap Singh, who owns a small hotel in Varanasi,
said the city was calm despite the blasts also because the
bombs did not damage the temple.

"Nothing happened to the Hanuman deity which is highly
revered by the people here," said Singh. "Some people tried to
spread rumors that the temple and deity were damaged but we
actually went there and found out everything was fine."

(Additional reporting by Sheikh Mushtaq in Srinagar)