Traumatised Indians recount deadly Kashmir attack on Hindu pilgrims

Gunmen in Indian-administered Kashmir ambushed a bus of Hindu pilgrims on Sunday, killing nine people (-)
Gunmen in Indian-administered Kashmir ambushed a bus of Hindu pilgrims on Sunday, killing nine people (-)

Gunmen in Indian-administered Kashmir who ambushed a bus of Hindu pilgrims continued firing for several minutes even after it tumbled into a ravine, killing nine, survivors said Tuesday.

The brutal attack on Sunday evening was one of the deadliest attacks in years, and the first on Hindu pilgrims in the disputed Muslim-majority since 2017, when gunmen killed seven people in the Kashmir valley in another ambush on a bus.

"Bullets first hit the tyre of the bus, and it crashed into a tree -- my head got stuck under the seat in front," said Palit Gupta, a young girl among the 33 injured in the ambush.

"My daddy brought me out as I was crying and shouting 'save me'," she told AFP from her hospital bed.

The attack took place on Sunday evening -- around an hour before Hindu-nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi was sworn in for a third term in the capital New Delhi -- as the bus returned from the popular Shivkhori shrine.

"For a moment I thought I lost my life, but then I prayed pledging I will return to the shrine if I survive", said another injured pilgrim, Devi Prasad.

Kashmir has been divided between India and Pakistan since their independence in 1947, and both claim the high-altitude territory in full.

Rebel groups have waged an insurgency since 1989, demanding independence or a merger with Pakistan.

The conflict has left tens of thousands of civilians, soldiers, and rebels dead.

- 'Thought we were dead' -

Police said the driver was killed at the start of the shooting, with the bus then tumbling off the road.

"The terrorists continued to fire bullets on the bus for about five minutes after it had fallen into the gorge," said Prasad Gupta, one of the pilgrims recovering in a hospital in the city of Jammu.

"Some of us were hit with bullets," he added, visibly traumatised.

"We hid...and after they thought we were dead, they fled".

Santosh Kumar Verma, a prominent bruise on his face, said one "terrorist" fired at the front of the bus, with the vehicle careering to the side.

In his account, the gunmen "continued to fire bullets for about 15 minutes" after the crash.

On Tuesday, special forces, anti-terrorism and police officers continued a large-scale manhunt around the ambush site in the southern Reasi area, deploying drones to scan the forested area from above.

Interior minister Amit Shah has said the "culprits of this dastardly attack will not be spared".

Violence and anti-India protests have drastically fallen since 2019, when Modi's government cancelled the region's limited autonomy.

But since then rebel groups have targeted Indians from outside the disputed territory, killing several people.

Five rebels and an Indian air force corporal were killed in clashes since election campaigning began in the territory in April, until voting ended this month.

Two suspected rebels were also killed in a firefight with soldiers on June 3.

But the vote saw a 58.6 percent turnout, according to the election commission, a 30-percentage-point jump from the last vote in 2019 and the highest in 35 years.

India regularly accuses Pakistan of supporting and arming the rebels, a charge Islamabad denies.