NEW DELHI, India -- In one of the worst attacks on Hindu civilians in nine years of war in Kashmir, 25 men taking part in wedding parties were killed on Friday by gunmen armed with automatic weapons.
Indian officials in Kashmir said the killings, attributed to Pakistan-backed Muslim insurgent groups, occurred as members of two wedding parties drank tea at a village stall while waiting for a bus to take them home after the weddings. The officials said five gunmen arrived in a stolen jeep, took cash and jewelry from the wedding guests at gunpoint, then separated the men and opened fire. The two bridegrooms were among those killed.
The incident, in a remote rural area in the southern part of Kashmir, marked the third time in six months that large groups of Hindu civilians have been singled out for slaying by gunmen who have been identified by Indian officials as Muslim guerrillas.
Attacks on members of the Hindu minority in the territory have a deep political resonance for India, which has been in dispute with Pakistan over Kashmir ever since Pakistan was carved out of India as a haven for Muslims in the partition of 1947.
In January, 23 Hindu civilians were gunned down in a village north of Srinagar, the state's summer capital. The slayings occurred in a part of the Kashmir Valley that was home to more than 100,000 Hindus before the insurgency, many of whom fled at an early stage of the conflict to Hindu majority areas around Jammu, in the southern part of the state.
Then in April, 29 Hindu villagers, including 13 women and children, were killed in a remote mountain district in the Udhampur district, between Srinagar and Jammu.
That massacre caused a wave of outrage across India that was compounded by the accounts given by survivors, who said the killers struck after the villagers refused demands from the gunmen that they become Muslims and prove their conversion by eating beef. This is forbidden among Hindus, who regard cows as sacred. The survivors said that the killers forced other villagers to watch as they singled out their victims, killing many of them by cutting their throats.
Since it began in 1989, the Kashmir insurgency has taken at least 20,000 lives -- India's official estimate -- and perhaps as many as 50,000 -- the figure given by Muslim guerrilla groups. At least half the casualties have been civilians, and many of them have been killed in what international human rights groups have described as a pattern of abuses by Indian security forces and Muslim insurgents. In scores of cases chronicled by the rights groups, the two sides have made civilians their targets.
But the massacres of Hindus in recent months have raised especially strong feelings elsewhere in India, especially in the period since March, when a new government took power in New Delhi that is headed by the Bharatiya Janata Party, a Hindu nationalist group that has traditionally followed a hard-line policy on Kashmir.
After the April killings, top officials of the new government vowed to step up the war against the insurgents, and warned of possible retaliation against Pakistan, which India has accused of training, arming and financing the insurgents.
The warnings were stepped up after India's underground nuclear tests last month, raising fears that India might pursue insurgents into the part of Kashmir controlled by Pakistan, risking a wider war between the two nations. When Pakistan detonated its own nuclear tests two weeks after India's, the United States and other countries expressed alarm at the heightened tensions and urged both countries to open immediate discussions on Kashmir settlement.
India's home minister, L.K. Advani, who recently assumed overall control of Indian policy in the state, described the killing of the wedding guests on Friday as "a clear attempt at ethnic cleansing" and said responsibility for the attack, and the other massacres of Hindus, rested with Pakistan. Advani ordered additional Indian troops moved into the area of the attack, in the Doda district of southern Kashmir, and said the assailants would be hunted down.
Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee issued his own condemnation, saying India would exact the "sternest" punishment on the insurgents, whom he described as "enemies of peace." Vajpayee, widely viewed as a moderate among the Hindu nationalists who dominate in the government, has repeatedly appealed to Pakistan in recent weeks for talks on nuclear and other issues. But he has refused Pakistan's demand for foreign mediation in the Kashmir dispute, saying the issue must be settled directly by India and Pakistan.
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