An explosives-laden vehicle driven by a suicide bomber rammed into a bus carrying dozens of paramilitary personnel, said Sanjay Sharma, a spokesman for India’s Central Reserve Police Force.
The killings will inflame tensions between nuclear-armed rivals India and Pakistan, which both claim the Himalayan territory of Kashmir. India accuses Pakistan of sheltering and supporting militants that cross into Indian-controlled territory to carry out attacks against Indian rule.
Kashmir is part of India’s only Muslim-majority state. Since 1989, militants have waged attacks against Indian forces in Kashmir, fighting either for the territory’s independence or its merger with Pakistan.
Jaish-e-Mohammed, or Army of Mohammed, a militant group that seeks to merge Indian-held Kashmir with Pakistan, claimed responsibility for Thursday’s attack. Based in Pakistan, the group is led by Masood Azhar, a radical cleric.
The United States officially labeled Army of Mohammed a terrorist organization nearly two decades ago. In 2017, Washington pushed the U.N. Security Council to designate Azhar as a terrorist, but the move was vetoed by China.
Police officials said that the death toll in Thursday’s attack could still rise. With 38 officers confirmed killed, it was the deadliest militant assault on security personnel in Kashmir and one of the worst attacks in the history of the insurgency. In 2001, an attack on the state legislature left at least 38 dead.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is seeking reelection later this spring, called the attack “despicable” in a post on Twitter. “I strongly condemn this dastardly attack,” he wrote. “The sacrifices of our brave security personnel shall not go in vain.”
Modi has taken a tough line on matters of national security. In 2016, a team of militants stormed an army base near the town of Uri in Indian-held Kashmir, killing 19 soldiers. In the days after the Uri attack, Modi ordered what the government termed “surgical strikes” on militant hideouts just inside Pakistan-controlled territory.
A statement issued Thursday by India’s Foreign Ministry pointed the finger at the country’s neighbor. The leader of Army of Mohammed has “been given full freedom” by the government of Pakistan to “carry out attacks in India and elsewhere with impunity,” it said. A spokesman for Pakistan’s government said on Twitter that it “strongly” rejected any insinuation linking the attack to Pakistan “without investigations.”
Indian news outlets showed images of the wreckage left by the attack, including a vehicle that was blasted open and reduced to ribbons of charred metal. Izhar Ahmad said that he was driving to a relative’s house when he came upon the site of the attack, where he saw blood-soaked bodies lying on the road and a number of damaged security-force vehicles.
On Thursday, local journalists circulated a video in which a man claims to be the attacker. He says he joined Army of Mohammed a year ago. “By the time this video reaches you,” he states, “I will be in heaven.” The Washington Post could not independently verify the video’s authenticity.
Kenneth Juster, the U.S. ambassador to India, posted a statement on Twitter condemning the attack and sending condolences to families of the victims. “The United States stands alongside India in confronting terror and defeating it,” he wrote.
Since the insurgency in Kashmir began three decades ago, the level of violence has varied. Militants are thought to number only a few hundred, far fewer than at the insurgency’s peak in the 1990s and early 2000s.
In 2016, security forces killed Burhan Wani, a charismatic militant commander with a huge following. Mass protests broke out, and India responded with “excessive force that led to unlawful killings,” according to the U.N. Commissioner for Human Rights.
India’s renewed effort to crush the insurgency has provoked a backlash among a large swath of Kashmiris. Now when security personnel try to apprehend militants, they often face the anger of local residents, who throw stones and try to disrupt the operations. Last year was the region’s deadliest in a decade, with increased deaths among security forces, militants and civilians.
But Thursday’s attack was highly unusual. Kabir Taneja, an expert on national security at the Observer Research Foundation in Delhi, said that this type of large-scale bomb attack is rare in Kashmir, where militants often mount attacks using firearms, not improvised explosive devices.
National security is “sacrosanct” for India’s ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, Taneja added. “They will not forget this.”
Naseem reported from Srinagar, India.