By Ahmad Adil, Zahid Rafiq and Aamir Latif
CHANDIGARH, India / SRINAGAR, Jammu and Kashmir / ISLAMABAD, Pakistan
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Friday warned of a strong response to a deadly car bombing that killed dozens of paramilitary troops in Jammu and Kashmir which his government blamed on Pakistan.
Police said 33 troops were killed on Thursday when an explosive-laden vehicle rammed into a paramilitary bus along the Jammu-Kashmir highway. Media reports and government sources who spoke anonymously to Anadolu Agency claim the death toll has crossed 44.
Jaish-e-Mohammad, a militant group, claimed responsibility of the attack releasing pictures of a 22-year-old suicide bomber.
This is the worst attack in decades in the insurgency hit region and comes months before Modi is seeking a second term in general elections.
In a meeting with his security advisers broadcast on NDTV, Modi said: “The forces behind this act of terrorism and those responsible for it will be definitely be punished.”
"If our neighbor, which is totally isolated in the world, thinks it can destabilize India through its tactics and conspiracies, then it is making a huge mistake,” he said, referring to Pakistan, its nuclear-armed arch-rival.
India also removed the most favored nation (MFN) trade privilege to Pakistan.
Pakistan on Friday rejected the allegations condemning the attack.
In a statement, Pakistan's Foreign Ministry said: "The attack in Pulwama [district] in the Indian occupied Kashmir is a matter of grave concern. We have always condemned acts of violence anywhere in the world."
"We strongly reject any insinuation by elements in the Indian media and government that seek to link the attack to Pakistan without investigations," the ministry said.
As the diplomatic row escalated, the Indian foreign secretary summoned the Pakistani envoy and "issued a very strong demarche in connection with the terrorist attack", daily Hindustan Times reported.
In a tit-for-tat, Pakistan summoned the Indian Deputy High Commissioner Ajay Bisaria in Islamabad to the Foreign Ministry and rejected allegations made by India.
Later during the day, Bisaria left for New Delhi after being called by the Indian government for consultations, Indian and Pakistani media reported.
- Kashmir remains tense
Indian Home Minister Rajnath Singh arrived in Jammu and Kashmir on Friday afternoon where he held a meeting with top Indian officials.
Indian news agency ANI quoted Singh as saying: “There are some elements here who take money from Pakistan and [its spy agency] ISI. I have told the officers that the security provided to such people should be reviewed.”
He was referring to several pro-indepence Kashmiri leaders who are provided security by Indian forces.
A 12-member special team of Indian National Investigative Agency (NIA) officers also arrived to investigate the bombing.
A curfew has been imposed in several parts of Jammu region reportedly to prevent rightwing Hindu mobs from attacking Kashmiris.
The last major attack in Kashmir was in 2016 when militants entered an Indian army camp in Uri killing 20 soldiers.
Jammu and Kashmir, a Muslim-majority Himalayan region, is held by India and Pakistan in parts and claimed by both in full. A small sliver of Kashmir is also held by China.
Since they were partitioned in 1947, the two countries have fought three wars -- in 1948, 1965 and 1971 -- two of them over Kashmir.
Also, in Siachen glacier in northern Kashmir, Indian and Pakistani troops have fought intermittently since 1984. A cease-fire came into effect in 2003.
Some Kashmiri groups in Jammu and Kashmir have been fighting against Indian rule for independence, or for unification with neighboring Pakistan.
According to several human rights organizations, thousands of people have reportedly been killed in the conflict in the region since 1989.
* Riyaz ul Khaliq contributed to this report from Ankara.
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