India mourns dead soldiers amid calls for revenge

This handout photograph taken and released by India's Press Information Bureau (PIB) on February 15, 2019 shows Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi gesturing as he walks next to coffins with the bodies of Indian troops killed in an attack in Kashmir, at Palam airport in New Delhi (AFP)

New Delhi - 

Thousands of mourners across India attended funerals on Saturday for some of the 41 soldiers killed in a suicide bombing in Indian-administered Kashmir as a round-the-clock curfew remained in force in part of the restive region.

The paramilitary troops were killed on Thursday as explosives packed in a van ripped through a convoy transporting 2,500 soldiers in the disputed Himalayan region, the deadliest attack in a 30-year-old armed conflict.

TV stations showed coffins wrapped in Indian flags being carried by thousands of people across their hometowns, after the bodies were flown to New Delhi late Friday for a ceremony attended by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

India has accused Pakistan of harbouring the militants behind the  attack, which has sparked nationwide outrage and some public calls for war against the nuclear-armed arch-rival to avenge the killings.

Kashmir has been split between India and Pakistan since independence from Britain in 1947, with both the countries, which have fought three wars, claiming it in its entirety.

Two buses of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) in the 78-vehicle convoy were targeted by the bomber on a key highway in the Pulwama district, just outside the main city of Srinagar.

The Pakistan-based Islamist group Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) claimed responsibility, and the vehicle was driven by a known local militant.

The powerful blast reduced one of the buses to a heap of mangled debris. Pictures showed bodies and body parts strewn all over the highway.

"I feel proud of the martyrdom of my son. I expect the government of India to avenge the killings," Brish Soreng, father of one of the soldiers, told reporters. 

- Diplomatic support -

Modi on Saturday said that those behind the attack  would be held responsible. 

India is garnering diplomatic support after the attack  and has vowed to "isolate" Pakistan diplomatically in the international community, saying it has "incontrovertible evidence" of Islamabad's role.

Pakistan has rejected the allegations.

Jaish-e-Mohammed is largely considered to be one of the most active Pakistan-based insurgent groups fighting in Kashmir. 

Islamabad was battling another crisis on its western border Saturday after Iran accused Pakistan-based militants of killing 27 Revolutionary Guards in a suicide car bomb attack in Isfahan city.

Tehran asked Pakistan to crack down on militants or face consequences for "housing" them.   

The warnings to Islamabad came ahead of Sunday's two-day visit by Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman to Pakistan. He is expected to visit India a day later. 

- Protests continue -

Street protests continued Saturday across several Indian cities with demonstrators burning effigies of Pakistani leaders and Muslim cleric Maulana Masood Azhar, who founded Jaish-e-Mohammed.

The shock attack has caused widespread anger across India and a violent backlash against Kashmiris elsewhere in the country. 

Mob attacks on Kashmiri students and businessmen have been reported in the northern city of Dehradun, with some fleeing the city.

A curfew remained in place in Kashmir's Hindu-majority Jammu city after mobs on Friday attacked Kashmiri properties, set fire to vehicles and pelted housing complexes with stones, prompting counter-protests in Srinagar.  

At least 12 people were injured in the city, local media reported, and internet access in the area was suspended.

Angry Indian social media users furiously demanded retribution for Thursday's attack, while several hawkish TV channels called for all-out war with Pakistan.

The attack  has put Modi's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on the back foot ahead of national elections due by May.

Modi's government in recent years has adopted an aggressive posture in Kashmir and shelved dialogue with Pakistan to boost its popularity after accusing the previous government of being soft on militants.

"Revenge is the only word that comes to my Mind," Modi government minister Babul Supriyo wrote on Twitter.

A meeting of political parties in New Delhi Saturday extended full support to the government in "fighting terrorism, defending India's unity and integrity".

India has stationed some 500,000 troops Kashmir, making it the most militarised zone in the world, following an armed rebellion that began in 1989.

Tens of thousands of people have died in the conflict with most casualties civilians. Last year was the deadliest in a decade with almost 600 killed.

Many separatist rebel groups are fighting for the independence of all of Kashmir, while some want the territory to become a part of Pakistan.

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