At least seven Hindu pilgrims were killed and 11 others wounded in a gun battle between militants and police forces in Anantnag, a district in Kashmir, on Monday evening. The attack marks the deadliest assault on Hindu pilgrims in the region since 2000, when 30 people were killed during the Amarnath Yatra, an annual religious pilgrimage to a cave shrine in the Himalayas. Monday’s victims were returning from the same pilgrimage when they were caught in the crossfire between gunmen and police. Around 100,000 Hindus have already completed this year’s pilgrimage, which runs from late June to late August.
The fighting began at around 8:30 p.m. local time when militants attacked a police patrol in the district, resulting in a shootout. At the same time, a passenger bus carrying more than 50 pilgrims drove through the region and was struck by bullets. Police initially reported that two pilgrims were killed on the scene, while another four died from injuries after being taken to a local hospital. Six of the deceased were women. A police source later told the BBC that the attack targeted police vehicles, not Hindu civilians.
In the wake of the incident, security forces claimed the bus was not properly registered and was not traveling as part of a larger convoy. By returning from the shrine at 8:30 p.m., they said, the bus ignored the rules of the pilgrimage, which prohibit vehicles from being on the road after 7 p.m. While it is unlikely that Hindu pilgrims were immediate targets, police were aware that the pilgrimage—which attracts around half a million people each year—could give rise to increased violence. After learning of a planned militant attack in the region, authorities tightened security by installing surveillance cameras and bulletproof bunkers, The Guardian reports.
On Saturday, police temporarily suspended the pilgrimage amid fears that the one-year anniversary of a Kashmiri rebel leader would incite an attack. Last year on July 8, Indian troops killed Burhan Wani, the chief of operations for Indian Kashmir’s largest rebel group, Hizbul Mujahideen. The death sparked protests in the majority-Muslim region, where many citizens support the rebels’ desire for an independent Kashmir or a merger with Pakistan. The state is currently divided between Indian and Pakistani rule by a de facto military border.
On Monday, the state’s former chief minister, Omar Abdullah, said the latest attack was “the one thing we had all feared” during this year’s pilgrimage:
The one thing we had all feared this year during the yatra. In spite of recent successes against militants & unprecedented force presence. https://t.co/NUkScKdGfl— Omar Abdullah (@abdullah_omar) July 10, 2017
Soon after, India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, strongly condemned the attack, but stopped short of calling it a terrorist incident:
Pained beyond words on the dastardly attack on peaceful Amarnath Yatris in J&K. The attack deserves strongest condemnation from everyone.— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) July 10, 2017
While Modi gave no indication of who was responsible, he claimed that “India will never get bogged down by such cowardly attacks [and] the evil designs of hate.” In 2000, the nation blamed the deaths of Hindu pilgrims on Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistan-based militant group.