LUCKNOW: India was on high alert Wednesday after a bomb exploded in Varanasi, one of its holiest cities and top tourist destinations, killing a one-year-old girl and wounding dozens of people.
Fearing more attacks, the home ministry put police across the country on high alert as investigators picked over the site of the explosion at a crowded bathing area on the holy river Ganges in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said the blast was the work of “terrorists”, while a home-grown extremist group, Indian Mujahedeen, claimed responsibility in an email sent to various media outlets.
The explosion at around 6:30pm local time on Tuesday targeted one of the city’s many ritual bathing ghats on the Ganges, causing a stampede in which a number of the victims were injured.
A one-year-old girl was killed and as many as 37 suffered injuries, including six foreign tourists from France, Germany, Italy, Japan and South Korea, hospital sources told the Press Trust of India news agency.
Prime Minister Singh led condemnation of the attack.
“It was an attempt to weaken our resolve to fight the evil forces of terrorism, and the terrorists will not succeed,” he told reporters in New Delhi late Tuesday.
The last blast in India was in February when a bomb targeted a restaurant in the southwestern city of Pune, killing 17.
“There were people running everywhere and falling over each other. It was chaos,” one witness, Ramlal Jaichand, told the the Hindi news channel IBN 7.
Police told AFP the blast was of low-intensity and originated from a crude device that did not appear to have contained metal shrapnel that would have made the death and injury toll much higher.
Large numbers of Hindu devotees gather in Varanasi throughout the year to cremate their dead on the banks of the Ganges, and bathe in the waters.
In 2006, some 20 people were killed and 60 wounded in two bomb explosions at a temple and a train station in Varanasi that were blamed on Muslim militants.
Tuesday’s blast came a day after the anniversary of the 1992 razing of a mosque by Hindu zealots in the Uttar Pradesh temple town of Ayodhya, which sparked some of post-independence India’s worst communal violence.
The email from the Indian Mujahedeen said the attack was retaliation for a recent court ruling that divided the disputed Ayodhya site between Hindu and Muslim claimants.
The verdict, which has been appealed, was widely seen as favouring the Hindu litigants.
The authenticity of the email was still being verified, Home Minister P. Chidambaram said.
The Indian Mujahedeen claimed responsibility for a series of blasts in the Indian capital in 2008 which left 14 people dead and several others wounded.
The group, which also calls itself “the militia of Islam”, first came to public attention in November 2007 following serial blasts in Uttar Pradesh.