NEW DELHI, INDIA - Seventeen Indian soldiers have been killed and nearly 20 wounded in the deadliest attack mounted by militants in two decades on an Indian army base in Kashmir, close to the border with Pakistan.
Officials say four heavily armed commandos using guns and grenades stormed the army camp early Sunday in Uri, which lies west of Indian Kashmir’s capital, Srinagar.
An army statement said four militants were killed. A search is under way for others possibly hiding in the area.
The gunbattle lasted for several hours and explosions could be heard throughout, according to local reporters.
In a series of tweets, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi strongly condemned what he called the "cowardly terror attack." He said "I assure the nation that those behind this despicable attack will not go unpunished."
The U.S. also strongly condemned the attack.
Army officials said casualties were heavy because many of the soldiers died in a fire that engulfed the tents and temporary shelters where they were housed.
Helicopters evacuated the wounded soldiers to hospitals in Srinagar, the main city in Indian Kashmir.
Home Minister Rajnath Singh tweeted that in wake of the terror attack in Uri, he has postponed planned upcoming visits to Russia and the United States.
The assault comes as Indian Kashmir reels under violent protests that have left nearly 80 civilians dead.
The attack Sunday could further heighten tensions between nuclear-armed rivals India and Pakistan, which both claim all of the Himalayan region.
Hours after the attack, India's deputy chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Nirmal Singh, accused Pakistan. “This is a proxy war. Pakistan is trying to find ways to foment trouble in Kashmir,” said Singh.
Sunday’s assault took place nine months after a militant raid on an air base in Pathankot in Punjab state killed seven Indian soldiers. That attack brought relations between India and Pakistan to a low point as New Delhi blamed that attack on Pakistan-based militants. Islamabad denies any role in supporting cross border terrorism.
Former major general Dipankar Banerjee, who heads the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies in New Delhi, called Sunday’s attack a major concern. “This government unlike in the past has committed themselves to a response on such provocative acts and therefore the response will be harsh. There will be escalations of tensions along the line of control in Kashmir,” he said.
Kashmir is a heavily militarized region that has been the trigger for two of the three wars between India and Pakistan.