India's prime minister warned of a "crushing response" to the suicide bombing of a paramilitary convoy in Indian-controlled Kashmir that killed 41 people and was the deadliest in the divided region's volatile history.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi placed the blame for Thursday's bombing squarely on neighboring Pakistan, which India, with the backing of the United States, accuses of supporting rebels in Kashmir.
"Our neighboring country thinks such terror attacks can weaken us, but their plans will not materialize," he said Friday, adding that government forces have been "given total freedom" to deal with the militants.
"Security forces have been given permission to take decisions about the timing, place and nature of their response," he said.
Pakistan's ruling party rejected Modi's allegation, saying India's governing party was blaming Islamabad for political gains in the upcoming national election and adding it only offers political support to the Himalayan region's suppressed Muslim people.
"The Indian allegations against Pakistan over yesterday's incident are part of the election campaign," said Naeemul Haq, a senior leader of the Tehreek-e-Insaf party, which came to power in last year's parliamentary election. He said the violence in Kashmir was "the result of the brutalities of Indian occupied forces in Kashmir."
Meanwhile, Pakistani officials said Saturday a visit by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to Islamabad has been delayed by a day, a sudden announcement that surprised many Pakistanis, who were preparing to welcome the Saudi delegation amid extraordinary security in the capital.
Without giving any explanation, the Foreign Ministry said Prince Mohammad, whose country has also strongly condemned the attack in Kashmir, will now arrive in Islamabad on a two-day visit Sunday and that his program remains unchanged. It will be the crown prince's first visit to Pakistan since he was appointed heir to the throne in 2017.
The prince was originally scheduled to come to Pakistan later Saturday along with a delegation of businessmen. But Pakistani officials confirmed Saturday that an upcoming conference of Pakistani and Saudi business leaders was postponed "due to unavoidable circumstances." It suggested that Prince Mohammad will now visit Pakistan with a reduced number of business officials.
Pakistan expects a $7 billion Saudi investment over the next two years after Prince Mohammad's visit. The prince will also travel to neighboring India.
The attack comes at a difficult time for Pakistan, which is struggling to attract foreign investment and avert a payments crisis, with its swiftly diminishing foreign currency reserves at less than $8 billion, equivalent to two months of import payments.
Protests, mob attacks
The attack has ratcheted up already high tensions between the nuclear-armed neighbors, who both administer parts of the disputed territory but each claim it entirely.
Indian Finance Minister Arun Jaitley announced Friday that New Delhi was withdrawing the most-favored nation trade status given to Pakistan and would take all possible diplomatic steps "to ensure the complete isolation from international community of Pakistan of which incontrovertible evidence is available of having a direct hand in this gruesome terrorist incident."
India's Foreign Ministry also summoned the Pakistani ambassador to protest the attack.
Pakistan's Foreign Ministry said the country condemns acts of violence anywhere in the world and denied any involvement. "We strongly reject any insinuation by elements in the Indian media and government that seek to link the attack to Pakistan without investigations," it said in a statement.
Rebels, many of whom want Kashmir united with Pakistan, have been fighting Indian control since 1989. But the Muslim-majority region has experienced renewed attacks and repeated public protests in recent years as a new generation of Kashmiri rebels, especially in the southern parts of the region, has challenged New Delhi's rule with a mixture of violence and social media.
About 70,000 people have been killed in the uprising and the ensuing Indian crackdown. Last year's death toll was the highest since 2009, with at least 260 militants, 160 civilians and 150 government forces killed.
In Thursday's attack, a local Kashmiri militant rammed an explosive-laden van into a bus traveling in the paramilitary convoy. In addition to the dead, the attack wounded nearly two dozen other soldiers, India's paramilitary Central Reserve Police Force spokesman Sanjay Sharma said.
Police said the bus was destroyed and at least five other vehicles were damaged.
The Greater Kashmir newspaper reported that militant group Jaish-e-Mohammed claimed responsibility. A pre-recorded video circulated on social media sites showed the purported attacker in combat clothes and surrounded by guns and grenades.
India's government said it had evidence the group, Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), had the backing of Pakistan and demanded Islamabad take action.
Authorities imposed a security lockdown in the southern Kakapora area to stop people from assembling at the home of the militant who allegedly attacked the convoy. Still, hundreds of people were able to reach his home by crossing rice fields and orchards, and offered prayers there.
Authorities suspended security convoys in the Kashmir Valley on Friday and Home Minister Rajnath Singh arrived in Srinagar to review the security situation. He said civilian traffic would be stopped during the movement of convoys in Kashmir.
Meanwhile, three top Kashmiri leaders known as the Joint Resistance Leadership who challenge India's sovereignty over Kashmir said they regretted the killings. They said in a statement that India's "muscular military approach to counter an essentially political and human problem is wreaking havoc in Kashmir, especially on the next generation."
"Those who are here to execute this policy are also under stress and paying a price with their lives," they said.
The attack has raised tensions elsewhere in Hindu-majority India. Hundreds of residents carrying India's national flag in Hindu-dominated Jammu city in the Muslim-majority state burned vehicles and hurled rocks at homes in Muslim neighborhoods, officials said. Authorities imposed a curfew and appealed for restraint.
Some people were reported injured in the mob attacks.
Nearly 100 protesters chanting slogans such as "Pakistan down, down!" and "Attack Pakistan, Attack," burned an effigy of Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan in a park close to India's Parliament in New Delhi. They later dispersed.
Pakistan-backed "chaos, violence and terror"
The U.S. singled out Pakistan in a statement condemning the attack.
"The United States calls on Pakistan to end immediately the support and safe haven provided to all terrorist groups operating on its soil, whose only goal is to sow chaos, violence, and terror in the region," the statement from the White House press secretary's office said.
It said the attack strengthened U.S. resolve to bolster counterterrorism cooperation with India.
India's foreign ministry said on Saturday the United States supports the country's right to self-defence against cross-border attacks. U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton spoke to his Indian counterpart Ajit Doval on Friday night, promising to help bring those behind the attack to justice, the foreign ministry said in a readout of the phone call.
"The two NSAs vowed to work together to ensure that Pakistan cease to be a safe haven for JeM and terrorist groups that target India, the U.S. and others in the region," the foreign ministry said.
"They resolved to hold Pakistan to account for its obligations under UN resolutions," it added.
India and Pakistan have fought three wars since gaining independence from Britain in 1947 and regularly exchange fire along their highly militarized border in Kashmir.
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