Dozens of Indian paramilitaries have been killed in the first suicide car bombing in the disputed region of Kashmir in nearly two decades.
A lone militant is believed to have driven a vehicle laden with explosives close to a Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) convoy and detonated it just after 3pm on Thursday on a busy highway outside the state capital of Srinagar.
“The convoy was coming into Kashmir valley and was hit by a vehicle explosion which was carried out by a suicide bomber,” Sanjay Sharma, a CRPF spokesman, said. “It was a very powerful explosion and a bus has been completely shredded.”
Photographs from the scene showed the blackened, twisted remains of a vehicle surrounded by debris. No official death toll has been announced, but a senior police source in Srinagar told the Guardian 33 people had been killed and the toll is expected to rise as more of the dead are identified.
Indian news outlets quoted government sources saying around 40 people had been killed which, if true, would make the attack one of the deadliest outside of a war zone in the country’s history.
The attack took place on a heavily guarded highway that serves as a key supply route for troops stationed in the Kashmir valley and along the ceasefire line with Pakistan. There were around 2,500 troops travelling in the convoy and more than 40 on the bus that was targeted.
The Pakistan-based militant group Jaish-e-Mohammed claimed responsibility for the bombing. It said it was carried out by Adil Ahmad Dar, a locally recruited fighter from south Kashmir’s Pulwama district. The group released a video showing Dar delivering his will and a photograph of him surrounded by guns and grenades.
An Indian foreign ministry statement demanded that “Pakistan stop supporting terrorists and terror groups operating from their territory”.
Militant groups have been fighting Indian security forces in Kashmir for 30 years. Control of the Himalayan region is divided between India and Pakistan and claimed in full by both, with a smaller patch administered by China.
Though fedayeen assaults, in which gunmen enter an encounter knowing they will fight to the death, are relatively common in Kashmir, Thursday’s attack is the first using a car bomb in 19 years. It follows the deadliest year for militants in a decade. Three gunfights this week left eight insurgents and one Indian soldier dead.
The last car bomb attack in Kashmir was carried out in 2000 by a Birmingham resident, Mohammad Bilal.
Jaish-e-Mohammed is designated by the UN and Britain as a terrorist group and is alleged to have links to elements within the Pakistani government. China has repeatedly blocked attempts by the Indian government to have the UN security council declare the group’s leader, Masood Azhar, a terrorist.
The group carried out the most recent major attack in Kashmir in September 2016, when its fighters stormed an army camp in Uri, a garrison town near the ceasefire line with Pakistan, and killed 19 soldiers.
That attack prompted India to announce it had carried out an incursion into Pakistan-controlled Kashmir to destroy a militant staging ground, an operation referred to as “surgical strikes” and turned into a patriotic blockbuster film that is currently screening.
“The Pakistanis are wanting to up the ante again ahead of the election,” said Khalid Shah, an associate fellow at the Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation. India will hold general elections starting in April.
The Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, called the bombing despicable. “I strongly condemn this dastardly attack,” he tweeted. “The sacrifices of our brave security personnel shall not go in vain. The entire nation stands shoulder to shoulder with the families of the brave martyrs. May the injured recover quickly.”
Rahul Gandhi, the president of the main opposition Congress party, sent condolences to the victims. “I’m deeply disturbed by the cowardly attack on a CRPF convoy … in which 10 of our brave men have been martyred and many others wounded,” he said, quoting an earlier death toll.
The fact the alleged perpetrator was Kashmiri reflects a growing radicalisation of local youths in a militancy that was once dominated by Pakistani or Afghan fighters who snuck over the border. “That is the most worrying factor,” Shah said.
He said the Modi government appeared not to have a coherent policy in the region since 2016, when the killing of militant leader Burhan Wani sparked mass protests that continued for months and which were often met with force by Indian security personnel.
“The government has focused on the number of terrorists killed in a particular year, but it’s lost sight of the fact that the recruitment of Kashmiri boys has gone up from 88 in 2016 … to 191 last year,” he said.
Modi campaigned in 2014 promising to adopt a hardline approach to militancy in Kashmir, and, with the election campaign about to begin in earnest, he is likely to face pressure from his Hindu nationalist base to respond strongly to this latest attack.