Wed Mar 8, 2006 1:24 AM ET
VARANASI, India (Reuters) – Armed police in India mounted vigil in Varanasi and Hindu groups called for a strike but the streets of the ancient holy city where bomb blasts killed 15 people were calm on Wednesday despite fears of a backlash.
Tuesday’s blasts in Varanasi, one of the holiest pilgrimage centers for the country’s majority Hindus, also wounded dozens of people and came barely a week before Holi, the Hindu festival of colors.
It sparked fears of sectarian violence as some police officers suspected the attack to be the work of Islamist militants fighting against Indian rule in disputed Kashmir.
The attack also came just days after clashes between Hindus and Muslims in another city not far from Varanasi.
But there were no reports of trouble on Wednesday as an estimated 3,000 police and special anti-riot forces were deployed in Varanasi alone, police said.
"The city is peaceful. We have taken all precautions. There have been no reports of any untoward incidents," said K.L. Meena, Varanasi’s inspector-general of police.
"There have been no arrests so far and police parties are conducting raids at various places since last night," he said.
Analysts and locals said they did not expect the customary, knee-jerk violent reactions because most Indians were weary of violence.
Meena said there were only two bomb blasts and not three as police had earlier said.
The first bomb went off in the packed, centuries-old Sankat Mochan temple where hundreds of devotees of the Hindu monkey-god Hanuman had gathered for evening prayers.
The second exploded at the city’s cantonment railway station. Police had said on Tuesday that two bombs exploded at the station.
Yashpal Singh, the police chief of Uttar Pradesh state, where Varanasi is located, said he suspected Pakistan-based Islamist militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba of involvement.
Police said they had shot dead one Lashkar man in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh’s capital, and TV channels said two Lashkar militants were killed in New Delhi, but it was not known if they were connected to the Varanasi blasts.
LOCALS CALM, MARKETS CAUTIOUS
"He was instrumental in carrying out serial blasts in several places. We are trying to find out whether he was connected to the Varanasi blasts," Varanasi’s police chief Navneet Sikera said referring to the Lucknow militant.
Lashkar, which is outlawed in Pakistan, has been blamed for several violent attacks across India in the past, including one on another Hindu holy site in Uttar Pradesh last year.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh urged people to remain calm after the blasts, but Hindu groups allied to the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party called for a general strike in the state on Wednesday to protest against the blasts.
Authorities said they had shut down schools and colleges as a precaution, but a Reuters reporter said traffic on the streets of the ancient city appeared normal.
"People are moving around. Puja (worship) is going on in the temples. There is no problem now," said 65-year-old housewife Prem Lata.
Local doctor Ashok Rai said he would open his clinic despite the strike.
"There is no tension. It’s nothing related to Hindus and Muslims. It is a terrorist incident and people are treating it like that. Everybody is sad but life goes on," Rai said.
Temple-studded Varanasi, 670 km (415 miles) southeast of New Delhi, is on the banks of the holy Ganges river.
Hindus believe that dying in Varanasi, being cremated on the banks of the Ganges and the ashes immersed in the river ensures release from the cycle of rebirth. Many elderly and ill people come here if they believe they are close to death.
The United States condemned the incident.
Indian shares were expected to consolidate on Wednesday.
"Sentiment will turn cautious … but I don’t see any major damage taking place on the indices. The overseas and domestic interest in India remains high," said Sanjay Dutt, director at Quantum Securities.
(Additional reporting by Surojit Gupta, Kamil Zaheer and Shailendra Bhatnagar in New DelhiI)