NEW DELHI (Reuters) – Indian police combed the sites of three powerful blasts in New Delhi on Sunday for clues to who carried out coordinated attacks that killed at least 57 people, just days before major Hindu and Muslim festivals.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who cut short a visit to Kolkata to rush back to the capital, blamed Saturday night”s attacks in crowded pre-holiday bazaars on terrorists, but said it was too early to speculate who was behind the blasts.
Nevertheless, local newspapers and international security experts were quick to point the finger of suspicion at Pakistan-based militants fighting Indian rule in disputed Kashmir and opposed to the peace process between India and Pakistan.
"I am certain these attacks were carried out by groups from the subcontinent, although the operational method and modus operandi was inspired by al Qaeda," Rohan Gunaratna, a Singapore-based expert on terrorism, said on Sunday.
"It is very likely the attacks were meant to affect the peace process between Pakistan and India."
A previously unknown Kashmiri militant group, calling itself the Inqilabi (Revolutionary) group, contacted a news agency in Indian Kashmir on Sunday and claimed responsibility for the blasts, television reported.
But it was not clear if the claim was genuine or if the group”s name was a front for a larger organization.
S. Regunathan, the top bureaucrat in Delhi”s local government, told Reuters that 57 people were killed and about 140 wounded in the blasts, although some media said 61 people died.
More than 110 were still in hospital, many of them critically injured, some with severe burns.
New Delhi”s chief minister appealed for people to stay away from public areas for the next few days ahead of the major Hindu celebration of Diwali, or the festival of lights, on Tuesday and the Islamic Eid al-Fitr a few days later.
The markets where the blasts occurred opened on Sunday but were almost empty.
There were also scares at two fairs in the capital on Sunday after an unattended bag was found at one and information received about a bomb at another. The schools where the fairs were being held were cordoned off and searched, but no bombs found.
Elsewhere, extra armed police manned new barricades on the streets and the turnout at some temples and mosques was lower than normal in the cool, clear autumn day.
"There is some sense of fear, obviously," said 40-year-old resident Mohammad Salim.
But the scene at India Gate, a monument in the heart of New Delhi near most VIP installations, was like any other holiday. Dozens of teenagers played cricket on the lawns near the structure erected in memory of war heroes.
Domestic and foreign tourists, who regularly come here, were walking around and taking photographs. Hawkers and icecream-sellers were doing brisk business.
"It is a sad event but life has to go on," said Meenakshi Dutta, a tourist from Kolkata.
The blasts came as Indian and Pakistani officials meeting in Islamabad agreed to open their Kashmir frontier to help victims of this month”s devastating earthquake, the latest step in a peace process opposed by some Islamic Kashmiri separatists.
Pakistan, the United Nations and other countries condemned the attacks, especially coming at such a sensitive time.
"Today is another sad reminder that terror knows no borders and respects no religion," U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said late on Saturday. "These acts are made more heinous in that they deliberately targeted innocent civilians preparing for holiday celebrations."
India has blamed previous attacks on Pakistan-based militants. But the country is also racked by scores of revolts and in May two blasts blamed on Sikh separatists killed one person and wounded dozens in Delhi.
Media said at least 20 people had been held for questioning. Earlier, Deputy Home Minister Sri Prakash Jaiswal said raids were being carried out at several places in the city but said no arrests had yet been made.
The blasts struck two markets and near a bus at another as dusk fell across the capital of 14 million people, a time when bazaars were packed with people shopping for special sweets and last minute presents for the coming festivals.
"There was a huge sound," said Sunita, who lives near one of the markets, in an area popular with foreign backpackers. "I saw many people lying on the ground. I saw a child”s arm cut off and somebody else”s brain smashed out. It was very bad. Very bad."
Charred bodies, blood, glass and smoking debris littered the scenes as rescuers frantically pulled out the dead and injured.
Prime Minister Singh appealed for calm. "These terrorists wish to spread a sense of fear and suspicion among our peace-loving people," he told reporters after returning to Delhi.
"These blasts have been timed to create disaffection during the festive season when people of all communities are celebrating our national festivals. We shall defeat their nefarious designs."