Eight blasts rip Indian trains

At least 190 die in attack

Tightly coordinated explosions injure hundreds on rush-hour commuter trains

July 12, 2006|By HENRY CHU

NEW DELHI -- With frightening precision, eight explosions in rapid succession struck a busy commuter railway last night in Bombay, the financial capital of India, and turning the rush hour into a grisly tableau of carnage.

The Press Trust of India news agency said early today that authorities had increased the toll to 190 killed and 625 injured.

In what officials said was a well-coordinated attack, the blasts went off within minutes of each other in trains and on platforms along the length of a rail line carrying thousands of passengers home to the western and northern suburbs of Bombay. The force of the explosions reduced some carriages to smoking heaps of mangled metal, blew others apart and strewed luggage and body parts along the tracks.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack, and authorities did not say whether the explosions were set off by remote or caused by suicide bombers.

Confusion reigned for hours as police and ambulances scrambled to reach the blast sites, hampered by the city's nightmarish traffic and the heavy rains of the monsoon season. Television footage showed victims trying to help each other or pressing handkerchiefs against their own bleeding wounds.

It was the most lethal attack on Bombay since 1993, when bombs believed to have been planted by underworld figures ripped through parts of the city, including its famous stock exchange, and killed more than 250. The new spasm of violence was also the deadliest to hit India since a series of bombs went off in New Delhi last October, an incident blamed on armed separatists battling to turn the disputed region of Kashmir into an independent Muslim state or a part of archrival Pakistan.

Suspicion immediately fell on such militant groups in yesterday's near-simultaneous explosions, a method known to be favored by Kashmiri extremists.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh condemned the attack as a "shameful act" of terrorism and summoned members of his Cabinet for an emergency meeting last night. Security was stepped up across Bombay, which is also known as Mumbai. Other major cities such as Delhi and Bangalore were put on high alert.

Home Minister Shivraj Patil told reporters that the government had previously received information of a planned assault, but the "place and time was not known."

With rumors swirling about the suspected involvement of Islamic militants in a land where religious tension often boils over into mob violence, Patil appealed to his compatriots to stay calm and to refrain from jumping to conclusions.

"We will work to defeat the evil designs of terrorists and will not allow them to succeed," he said.

Pakistan was quick to denounce the attack as "a despicable act of terrorism," despite repeated accusations by India that it harbors, funds and arms the separatist groups in Kashmir. Peace talks between the two nuclear-armed nations, which have gone to war twice over their claims to the Himalayan territory, have made only incremental progress.

Just hours before the Bombay blasts, grenade attacks in Srinagar, the capital of Indian-controlled Kashmir, killed eight Indian tourists. It was not known whether the events in Srinagar and Bombay were directly connected.

The first explosion to hit Bombay was shortly after 6 p.m. on the city's western commuter railway, inaugurating a chain of blasts up and down the crowded line over the next half-hour.

A police official, who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said that five of the suspected bombs blew up in the first-class compartments of trains and three others on platforms. All were timed, it appeared, to inflict maximum damage during peak hours on a local rail network that serves an estimated 6 million people a day, mostly commuters heading in and out of the downtown financial center of the city.

Witnesses described scenes of panic and gore: screaming passengers jumping out of windows, severed limbs lying on the ground, clothes torn off of blast-scorched victims.

A deafening roar shook the carriage in which Shivali Bansal was riding, near Borivili station. "There was a blast in the next coach," Bansal told an Indian television station. "A shard came and hit my husband in the neck."

The able-bodied tried to pull the injured from the twisted wreckage, waiting, at least in one case, more than an hour for emergency personnel to arrive. With so many casualties in so many places, resources were stretched thin.

Thousands of commuters found themselves stranded, unable to get home or even to call their families to say they were all right, because phone lines were jammed or down. Steady rain compounded the misery.

Initial analysis pointed to the use of the plastic explosive RDX. "The intensity of the blasts showed that very high-quality RDX was used," the police official said.

The choice of Bombay as a target was fraught with symbolism.

Arguably India's most vibrant city and its commercial hub, Bombay is home to the country's biggest corporations and is the linchpin in the government's plan to keep the Indian economy growing by at least 8 percent a year. The Bombay Stock Exchange commands international attention, as does the Bollywood film industry, whose glamorous stars haunt the exclusive restaurants and bars that have sprung up in recent years.

With its gleaming skyscrapers and charming pockets of colonial ambience, Bombay is the shiny new face of India that officials want to project on the global stage. They will therefore be under pressure to show that the city can bounce back quickly.

Henry Chu writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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