Six men thought to be Islamic radicals stormed a disputed temple complex that is the main flash point for Hindu-Muslim tensions in India, and five of them died in a gun battle with police, authorities said Tuesday. The sixth man apparently blew himself up.
The attack on the temple complex in the town of Ayodhya, about 345 miles east of New Delhi, sparked fears of communal violence of the sort that occurred after Hindu extremists destroyed a mosque on the same site 13 years ago, triggering riots that left more than 2,000 people dead.
Security forces across the country were placed on alert after Tuesday's attack.
The opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) called for nationwide protests over what it said was the failure of the government, led by the Congress Party, to provide adequate security for the temple complex, known to Hindus as Ram Janmabhoomi. Hindu nationalists associated with the BJP have long campaigned for the construction of a temple on the ruins of the mosque.
"Tomorrow all over the country we will protest and express anguish over the incident," the BJP's president, L.K. Advani, said at a news conference. "Ram Janmabhoomi is a very sacred place, and the response to the attack over it should be equally fitting."
Advani has been accused of encouraging the Hindu mob that tore down the 16th-century Babri mosque in 1992. Many Hindus revere the temple complex as the birthplace of the god Ram and believe the mosque was built on the site of an ancient Hindu temple.
Authorities said Tuesday's incident in the state of Uttar Pradesh began about 9:15 a.m. when five of the attackers drove up to the site in a car. Another man then detonated explosives inside a jeep, killing himself and opening a hole in the iron fence that surrounds the 80-acre complex. The five others then entered through the breach and began firing at police, authorities said.
"It looked like very powerful explosives were used to create a passage into the complex," a witness told the Reuters news agency. "All the attackers were wearing black trousers and shirts, which made them look like commandos."
Police prevented the gunmen from entering the innermost part of the complex, which contains a makeshift, tent-like structure used by Hindu priests and pilgrims. Alok Sinha, the interior secretary of Uttar Pradesh, said that the gun battle lasted nearly two hours and that all five gunmen had been killed, according to Reuters. Three security officers were injured.
Authorities said they had not yet identified the attackers, although some of the country's more extreme Hindu nationalist leaders were quick to blame Pakistan for the incident. Pakistan in the past has supported Islamic militant groups fighting Indian forces in the disputed Himalayan province of Kashmir, but relations between the two nuclear-armed neighbors have greatly improved since the start of a peace process last year.