by Aman Singh
American Reporter Correspondent
New Delhi, India
September 24, 2002
TERROR SIEGE AT TEMPLE LEAVES 29 DEAD, 70 HURT
NEW DELHI, Sept. 24, 2002 -- Terrorists struck the main Hindu temple in Gujarat's western capital city of Gandhinagar in the late hours of evening today as hundreds of devotees said their prayers, blasting their way into the pink sandstone Akshardham Temple in a white Indian-made Ambassador sedan while hurling grenades and firing indiscriminately at helpless people praying there.
When the seven-hour siege ended, 29 of the estimated 600 worshipers were dead and another 70 were injured, officials say. The terrorist strike came on a day when U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Christina Rocca was in New Delhi on an official visit and as the second phase of voting took place peacefully in violence-plagued Kashmir.
Political and religious leaders came together in condemnation of the attack and appealed for peace in a state ravaged by riots earlier this year. Security forces eventually killed the two terrorists, who held about 25 worshippers trapped in the temple with them.
Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, who was on a trip to the Indian ocean island nation of Maldives, cut short his visit and will reach New Delhi tomorrow. Akshardham temple, or Swaminarayan as it is nationally known, is situated in a high security area about one mile from the State Secretariat, opposite the ministers' bungalows and near the residences of the Chief Minister and the state governor.
Authorities believe the terrorists had AK-47s and grenades. Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani, a Hindu hard-liner who has done much to polarize the nation's religious communities, said the terrorists entered the complex by jumping over the fence and throwing hand grenades, he said. A huge explosion was heard inside the temple at about 8:20 p.m. Indian Standard Time, apparently caused by a grenade.
During the siege, Advani said the number of terrorists was estimated at between two and four, all holed up in the complex surrounded by security forces including the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), a SWAT-like paramilitary group, and the Gujarat state police.
The attack started at 4:55 p.m. here when the gunmen entered from gate No. 3, where Manubhai Patel was standing guard. Patel told the police that two persons approaching the gate started firing and ran inside. The gunmen first entered the Exhibition Hall.
Police messages indicate that at least 20 people were shot by the gunmen in the hall, who then ran towards a "Tora Tora" carnival ride and started firing again from there.
Meanwhile, in the wake of this attack, a red alert has been sounded in Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal and the Indian capital of New Delhi. A strict vigil has been ordered at all places of worship and key installations in these states.
Religious places, VIP areas and public places like markets are being kept on special watch, with security men on the alert for any contingencies. Elite National Security Guards (NSG) from New Delhi are soon expected to bolster the security operations amid reports that the militants are attacking the desperate people fleeing from the temple at random. Night vision devices used by the police sharpshooters are expected to help in their operations as the sprawling 23-acre temple complex remains sealed.
The Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, who is still recovering politically from criticism he received in the wake of the Gujarat riots several months ago, said the state government has taken all necessary steps to combat the "dastardly" act and appealed to the people to maintain peace.
"Having failed in Kashmir, it was a handiwork of the same elements as part of their deep conspiracy to disturb peace in Gujarat," he said. The Chief Minister appealed to the people to have faith in the strength of the government and co-operate with it to handle the situation.
The latest reports from the area say that while the injured toll is constantly increasing, what authorities now fear most is the potential for riots sparked by this clear effort to rekindle suppressed communal tensions.
With the state not yet recovered from the terrible riots earlier this year, it is feared that today's violence may result any moment in an explosion that might prove disastrous for India.