At least 33 Indian soldiers were killed and 20 others wounded in a car bomb attack on a convoy in Indian-controlled Kashmir.
Officials said a local Kashmiri militant rammed an explosive-laden van into the convoy, targeting a bus carrying at least 35 soldiers.
Senior police officer Muneer Ahmed Khan said the attack occurred as the convoy reached southern Lethpora town on the outskirts of the main city of Srinagar.
He said a bus was destroyed and at least five other vehicles were damaged by the blast, which was one of the deadliest car bombings in the disputed region’s history..
Sanjay Sharma, a spokesman for India’s paramilitary Central Reserve Police Force, said many of the injured were in a critical condition.
“The blast was so powerful that one cannot recognise whether the vehicle was a bus or a truck. Just pieces of mangled steel remain of the vehicle,” he said.
The Greater Kashmir newspaper reported that militant group Jaish-e-Mohammed claimed responsibility for the attack. It quoted a local news gathering agency as saying a militant rammed an explosive-laden car into the convoy.
A pre-recorded nine-minute video, circulated on social media sites, showed the purported attacker in combat clothes and surrounded by guns and grenades. He was identified by local news sites as a Kashmiri rebel named Adil Ahmed from the southern Pulwama area.
Later on Thursday, thousands of people, chanting slogans such as “Brother Adil: your blood will bring revolution” and “Go India, go back,” marched to the militant’s village in solidarity.
Government forces tried to stop the villagers from gathering, leading to clashes as groups of young people hurled stones at the troops, who fired tear gas.
Kashmir governor Satya Pal Malik accused Pakistan of guiding the attack.
“Visibly it seems to be guided from across the border as Jaish-e-Mohammed has claimed responsibility,” Mr Malik said. “Such actions will not deter the resolve of our security forces … we will finish these inimical forces to the last.”
Videos circulated by local news groups showed ambulances rushing to the site and people running as smoke billowed from the damaged vehicles.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi condemned the attack in a tweet on Thursday evening. “I strongly condemn this dastardly attack. The sacrifices of our brave security personnel shall not go in vain,” he said.
Kashmir experienced many car bombings from 2000 to 2005 which inflicted high casualties on Indian troops. The attacks forced Indian authorities to procure bomb-proof armoured vehicles for soldiers operating in Kashmir.
Indian soldiers are seen everywhere in Kashmir and local residents make little secret of their fury towards their presence in the Himalayan region.
India and Pakistan each claim the divided territory of Kashmir in its entirety. Rebels have been fighting Indian control since 1989.
Many Kashmiris support the rebels’ demand that the territory be united either under Pakistani rule or as an independent country, while also participating in civilian street protests against Indian control.
About 70,000 people have been killed in the uprising and the ensuing Indian crackdown.