LUCKNOW, India (Reuters) – Indian police killed five gunmen who attacked a religious site in northern India on Tuesday that is claimed by both Hindus and Muslims and is a flashpoint for sectarian violence, while a sixth attacker blew himself up.
The unidentified gunmen raided a complex which houses a makeshift temple to Hindu God-king Ram which was built over a 16th-century mosque torn down by a Hindu mob in 1992.
Tensions over the site in the town of Ayodhya have caused widespread riots in the past and security forces were ordered on alert across the country to prevent trouble after Tuesday”s raid.
Hardline Hindus, accused of destroying the mosque in 1992, condemned the incident. The nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party announced a nationwide protest against the act on Wednesday.
No group claimed responsibility but the right-wing Shiv Sena party blamed the raid on Islamic militant groups they said were supported by neighbouring Pakistan. Activists from the party burned a Pakistani flag in India”s financial hub Bombay.
The six attackers arrived by car and an explosives-laden jeep. One blew up the jeep, killing himself, next to a tall, yellow iron railing fence around the 80 acre (30 hectare) complex, officials said.
"The body was in shreds," local college teacher V.N. Arora told Reuters by telephone.
That blast ripped open a hole in the fence through which the five gunmen entered the complex, firing at police inside. The five were killed after nearly two hours of fighting, officials said.
"It looked like very powerful explosives were used to create a passage into the complex. All the attackers were wearing black trousers and shirts which made them look like commandos," said Arora.
Television footage showed the charred shell of the jeep, with its top and back missing, next to the complex. Nearby on the pavement was a charred, severed arm.
"Things are fully under control now," said Alok Sinha, home secretary of Uttar Pradesh state where Ayodhya is located, about 600 km (375 miles) southeast of New Delhi.
He said one of the men was a suspected suicide bomber with explosives strapped to his body, half of which was apparently blown off during the shootout.
Five automatic rifles and three grenades were recovered from the dead men, Sinha added.
Hardline Hindu groups say the mosque was built by Islamic invaders on the spot where they believe Ram — one of Hinduism”s most revered deities — was born thousands of years ago.
"It”s not a symbolic attack but a very serious attack," said BJP chief Lal Krishna Advani, who led the campaign for a Ram temple on the disputed site in Ayodhya in the early 1990s. "The reaction to this attack should be proportionate."
A Pakistani foreign ministry spokesman condemned the attack. "Pakistan is against terrorism in all its forms," he said.
Hizbul Mujahideen, a militant group fighting against Indian rule in Kashmir, said Hindu groups orchestrated the attack.
"The attack is a deep conspiracy to worsen relations between Hindus and Muslims. The attack is the handiwork of hardline Hindu groups," a man who identified himself as a Hizbul commander told a Kashmiri news service.
The demolition of the mosque in 1992 triggered nationwide riots in which 3,000 people died, the worst religious clashes since the bloodletting that followed independence and partition of British colonial India into Hindu-majority India and Islamic Pakistan in 1947.
However, Ayodhya, an ancient town of hundreds of temples and narrow, winding streets infested with monkeys, has itself been largely peaceful since the 1992 turmoil.