Bombs in New Delhi kill dozens

Bus, 2 markets hit during peak shopping hours on eve of holiday


NEW DELHI, India -- A series of bomb blasts shook the heart of the Indian capital yesterday evening, killing more than 50 people in crowded marketplaces and a public bus in an apparent coordinated attack on the eve of a national Hindu holiday.

Three explosions went off within minutes of each other starting about 5:30 p.m., during peak shopping hours. The first hit a busy market directly across from the central railway station, in an area popular with backpacking tourists. It was closely followed by two more blasts, one aboard a bus in the southeastern part of the city and another - the most lethal of the three - in a south Delhi marketplace, where at least 36 people died. Scores more were injured.

Officials refused to speculate on who orchestrated the bombings, but popular suspicion fell on Muslim separatist groups based in the disputed area of Kashmir, on the border with Pakistan.

The last major strike by Kashmiri militants on New Delhi occurred three years ago, a deadly assault on the Parliament that pushed India and Pakistan, both nuclear powers, to the brink of war. India has accused its neighbor of covertly backing extremists in their violent campaign to unite all of Kashmir with Pakistan or to create an independent state.

Since then, the two rivals have been trying to negotiate a settlement over the contested Kashmir region, nestled in the Himalaya Mountains. In April, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf declared the peace process "irreversible" and early today, the two nations agreed to open the militarized border of Kashmir to aid earthquake victims.

Indian authorities say five or six major militant Muslim organizations are based in mountainous Kashmir, as are several smaller splinter groups. In addition, dozens of other militant organizations of various stripes operate throughout this country.

"It's something that has been planned - that is quite obvious," Sheila Dikshit, chief minister of New Delhi state, said of the attacks. "But it's far too early to say anything [about] who it is who was behind it."

Indian television reported late yesterday that 10 people had been detained and that the powerful explosive RDX was used in the blasts.

Singh cut short a visit to Calcutta to rush back to the capital following the bombings.

"I condemn the cynical and premeditated attacks on innocent people. These are dastardly acts of terrorism aimed at the people of our country," Singh said.

In Islamabad, Pakistani foreign ministry spokeswoman Tasnim Aslam called the attack "a criminal act of terrorism. The people and government of Pakistan are shocked at this barbaric act and express deep sympathy with the families of the victims."

India and Pakistan are struggling to care for victims of the catastrophic earthquake that struck Kashmir Oct. 8. The rival nations have spoken of setting aside their differences to speed relief to the region, raising hope that stalled peace talks might receive a badly needed boost.

Negotiations to open crossings along the border began in Islamabad, the Pakistani capital, yesterday and ended early today with an agreement to establish passages at several points along the Line of Control.

Analysts worry that the bombings could harden relations between the two sides if Muslim militants believed to enjoy Pakistan's support are deemed responsible.

The symbolism of the timing of the bomb blasts seemed clear, coming three days before the Hindu festival of Diwali, a time when Delhi's congested streets and bustling markets are even more packed than usual. Residents string their homes with colored lights and set off firecrackers in the evenings in the run-up to the holiday.

Henry Chu writes for The Los Angeles Times.

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