As India's government on Tuesday blamed separatist rebels for gunning down seven Hindu pilgrims and wounding 19 more in Kashmir before fleeing into the night, rebel groups in the disputed region condemned the rare, deadly attack on civilians and insisted they had no part in it.
A memo that was circulated to regional police, military and paramilitary units two weeks ago indicates Indian security officials had been expecting an attack. The memo, marked “top secret,” warned that a “sensational attack by terrorist outfits cannot be ruled out” in the mostly Muslim region.
The memo, dated June 25 and verified as authentic by The Associated Press, said “terrorists have been directed to eliminate 100 to 150 yatris (pilgrims) and about 100 police.”
It described circumstances eerily similar to what transpired Monday night: “The attack may be in the form of standoff fire on yatra (pilgrimage) convoy, which they (militants) believe will result in flaring of communal tensions throughout the nation.”
Police said the attack began with gunmen unleashing a hail of bullets on an armored police vehicle and, soon after, on a nearby police patrol. They said that a bus carrying 60 Hindu pilgrims had been passing through the area when the patrolling police and militants were exchanging fire, and that some bullets struck the bus and its passengers.
The police also said that the bus had been traveling at night, despite instructions to avoid the roads after dark. Though security had been increased along the route for the pilgrimage, the thousands of deployed soldiers and police do not patrol overnight.
Several bus passengers who were wounded gave a different version of events, saying the bus had been targeted from three directions during the attack. They said the driver kept driving the bus as it was being struck with bullets near the southern town of Anantnag on the main highway linking Kashmir with the rest of India.
The annual summer pilgrimage to the Amarnath cave shrine, which began June 29 under heavy security, has been targeted in the past. Opponents of Indian rule in Kashmir accuse Hindu-majority India of using the pilgrimage as a political statement to bolster its claim to the disputed region.
On Tuesday, thousands of Hindus continued the religious pilgrimage undeterred, as Indian soldiers and police increased security along the Himalayan route for buses carrying pilgrims to the base camps where they start walking the path to the high mountain cave.
None of the rebel groups fighting to oust India from the mostly Muslim region has claimed responsibility for the attack, and the three top separatist leaders in Kashmir condemned it.
They demanded an independent investigation into the attack.
“This incident goes against the very grain of Kashmiri ethos,” the separatist leaders - Syed Ali Geelani, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and Mohammed Yasin Malik - said in a joint statement.
Police were searching for the assailants, who they said were from the Pakistan-based rebel group Lashkar-e-Taiba. India also blames the group for a 2008 attack that left 166 people dead in India's commercial capital of Mumbai.
“We're investigating the attack, but we know certainly that the Lashkar has done it. We'll soon deal with them,” police Inspector-General Muneer Ahmed Khan said.
Lashkar-e-Taiba denied any involvement in the attack, which they called “reprehensible” and “un-Islamic,” according to a statement sent to local media in Srinagar, the main city in Indian-controlled Kashmir.
The group said India was behind the attack, “to sabotage the freedom struggle of Kashmiris” and fulfill “its nefarious agenda” to crush the popular anti-India rebellion.
“No Kashmiri has ever targeted any pilgrims, and this barbarity and atrocity is the trademark of Indian forces,” the group's statement said.
Residents said they were afraid of a possible backlash by Hindu nationalists and Indian forces against Kashmiris elsewhere in India.
“My two brothers are studying in India,” school teacher Shagufta Kaunsar said. “I don't know if it's really safe for them there. We're already telling them to come back home.”
Omar Abdullah, a former chief minister of Kashmir, asked India's home ministry to protect Kashmiri students and workers across the nation. “Possibility of backlash can't be ignored,” he said in a Twitter message.
Most of the pilgrims wounded in the attack were released from hospitals on Tuesday. The bodies of those killed were flown to New Delhi on their way to the pilgrims' west Indian states of Gujarat and Maharashtra.
The attack sparked outrage across Kashmir and much of India.
In the Jammu region of Kashmir, which is dominated by Hindus, hundreds of protesters shouted angry slogans against the militants and burned a faceless effigy meant to represent both terrorism and Pakistan, which India blames for supporting the rebels. Many shops and businesses were shuttered for a protest strike in Jammu.
Meanwhile, students in the Gujarati city of Ahmadabad gathered for a sit-in to protest all religious violence, while peace activists planned a candlelight vigil in New Delhi on Tuesday night.
The Press Trust of India news agency said the last major attack on Amarnath pilgrims occurred in 2000, when gunmen killed 30 people in the Pahalgam area, including local porters carrying pilgrim's baggage up the mountain path.