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Indian Troops Storm Hindu Temple

A young Indian man is loaded onto an ambulance after he was injured in an attack at a temple in Gandhinagar near Ahmadabad, India on Tuesday. Sept. 24, 2002. Attackers sprayed gunfire through the temple crowded with Hindu worshippers Tuesday, killing at least 30 people.
AP
India deployed thousands of troops to prevent an eruption of Hindu-Muslim rioting Wednesday after attackers besieged a major Hindu temple complex in a raid that left at least 32 people dead, most of them worshippers.

India blamed its bitter rival Pakistan for the attack, which lasted 14 hours until Indian commandos stormed the temple at dawn Wednesday and killed the two gunmen. Pakistan denied the accusation, saying it was intended to increase tensions between the nuclear-armed neighbors.

Despite fears of a fresh flare-up in Hindu-Muslim violence, there was little sign of unrest in Gujarat's main city Ahmedabad, a short distance away the from state capital Gandhinagar where the gunmen attacked the Akshardham Temple on Tuesday evening.

But Hindu nationalist groups, including the Bharatiya Janata Party which heads the ruling coalition government, called a nationwide strike for Thursday to protest against the attack.

"We are protesting against the killings of innocent people by militants. The call is not against any community in particular," BJP official Vinod Tawde said in Bombay.

At least 1,000 people were killed earlier this year in Gujarat, most of them Muslims slain by Hindu mobs, in riots after a Muslim attack on Hindu train passengers in February.

The Indian army sent 3,000 soldiers to Gujarat on Wednesday on a request from the state government, which had been criticized for not acting quickly to quell the earlier rioting. Schools, colleges and most businesses were shut in Gandhinagar and the adjoining commercial capital of Ahmadabad amid an opposition strike.

The attack on the Swaminarayan Temple on the outskirts of Gandhinagar, Gujarat's capital, began Tuesday evening, when the gunmen attacked with grenades and assault rifles.

Up to 500 pilgrims, priests, museum guides and souvenir traders were in the complex when the attackers zoomed up in a car, leaped over the fence and began firing. At first the attackers were taken for policemen.

"They had grenades in their pockets and in their hands. Each of them was armed with one big gun," said Rajubhai Sardar, a 31-year-old Sikh cloth merchant from Gujarat. "They threw the grenade at us and we were all injured when the grenade exploded."

Sardar grabbed his injured five-year-old daughter when he saw the two gunmen right in front of him.

"One of them pulled my daughter. I fell at his feet and begged him to let her go. The other terrorist then gestured to let my daughter go and they both left us," he said.

As hundreds of people fled, troops swarmed into the sprawling complex, which centers on a 108-foot-high monument built of pink sandstone. The gunmen eluded government forces for nearly 14 hours, lying quiet for long periods, then returning fire and lobbing grenades, said Brig. Raj Sitapathy, head of the New Delhi-based commando force that led the final assault.

The gunmen were unable to take hostages, because pilgrims either fled or hid themselves in locked rooms. After the siege ended, 65 pilgrims were rescued from one of the rooms, Sitapathy said.

The siege left 27 worshippers or temple workers dead, as well as two police officers, a commando and the two attackers. Seventy-four people were injured, including at least 23 police officers, officials said.

No group claimed responsibility for the attack, and the gunmen were not identified.

The gunmen were young, clean-shaven and carried letters in Urdu, a language used by many South Asian Muslims, according to a Reuters reporter who saw their bodies. They were also carrying dried fruits, sweets and Indian bank notes and coins.

Officials said the name of a previously unknown group, the Tehrik-e-Kasas (Movement of Revenge) was found in the letters.

But India's deputy prime minister, Lal K. Advani, blamed Pakistan.

Advani referred to a Sept. 12 speech by Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf to the United Nations, when he condemned the killings of Muslims in Gujarat.

"Our enemy went to the United Nations and spoke about Gujarat," Advani told reporters at the temple site. "From that, it appears they had been planning for some time and this attack has been executed to implement their designs."

In Islamabad, Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokesman Aziz Ahmad Khan dismissed those claims and condemned the temple attack, saying it was intended to heighten tensions.

"These accusations are ridiculous. Such terrorist attacks don't promote any cause," he told The Associated Press.

Sitapathy told The Associated Press that two letters — written in the Urdu language — were recovered from the attackers, whose identities have yet to be ascertained. Urdu is spoken in parts of Pakistan and India.

Sitapathy said the letters bore the previously unknown name "Movement for Taking Revenge."

The reference to revenge could indicate a connection to the massacre of Muslims in the earlier Gujarat religious rioting. There was no immediate information about the religion of the men who attacked the temple.

In some ways — their dress, behavior, cache of food, approach to the temple in an Ambassador car used by officials, and quick action — the gunmen were similar to a group that attacked India's Parliament last Dec. 13. Those men were also young, clean-shaven and dressed in olive-colored civilian clothes.

India claimed those men were Pakistanis and accused Pakistan of plotting the Parliament attack. It led to talk of war and mobilization of 1 million troops, who still remain on the countries' border.

The tension was defused in June, but India has repeatedly said that Islamic militants continue to cross the border to stage attacks, mainly in Jammu-Kashmir, the Himalayan region that India and Pakistan have fought two of their three wars over.

Pakistan says it supports the aim of the militants seeking to separate Muslim majority Jammu-Kashmir from predominantly Hindu India, but denies giving them aid.

Meanwhile, states near Gujarat increased police patrols in areas where Muslims and Hindus live together and posted guards at temples and mosques, fearing a surge in sectarian violence.

"This is adding kerosene to a burning fire. There will be trouble in the riot-prone areas," said Maya Desai, a college student in Ahmadabad, about 15 miles from the attack site.

Gujarat's Chief Minister Narendra Modi — who is accused by human rights groups, foreign diplomats and Muslims of inciting the anti-Muslim rioting earlier this year — appealed for calm Wednesday.

In New Delhi, the imam of the country's largest mosque called the attack "anti-Islamic."