Srinagar, India: Militants armed with guns and grenades killed 17 soldiers in a raid on Sunday on an army base in Kashmir, the worst such attack for more than a decade in the disputed Himalayan region.
The rebels broke into the base near the town of Uri before dawn and lobbed the grenades at tents and barracks housing the soldiers before opening fire, an army officer said requesting anonymity.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi vowed to punish those behind the “cowardly” and “despicable” hours-long attack that also left four militants dead and scores of soldiers injured.
“We strongly condemn the cowardly terror attack in Uri. I assure the nation that those behind this despicable attack will not go unpunished,” Modi said in a series of tweets.
No one has so far claimed responsibility, but Home Minister Rajnath Singh said he was disappointed with “Pakistan’s continued and direct support to terrorism and terrorist groups”.
“Pakistan is a terrorist state and it should be identified and isolated as such,” Singh said on Twitter, adding that the militants “were highly trained, heavily armed and specially equipped”.
Sunday’s raid was likely to further sour ties between the nuclear-armed neighbours given the high death toll and the recent deadly clashes in the region between residents and security forces.
The attack is one of the bloodiest on soldiers since an armed rebellion against Indian rule erupted in 1989. Militants killed 30 soldiers and their families in a suicide attack in Kaluchak in the region in 2002.
Tents and other temporary accommodation for soldiers caught fire during the raid and subsequent gun battle at the brigade headquarters near the border known as the Line of Control (LoC), an army official said.
Twenty-eight injured soldiers were airlifted to a military hospital, four of them in a critical condition, an army officer said.
“We salute the sacrifice of 17 soldiers who were martyred in the operation,” the army said in a statement.
Kashmir is currently in the grip of deadly civilian unrest that has lasted for more than two months. Protesting residents are clashing almost daily with security forces in the worst crowd violence since 2010.
At least 87 civilians have been killed and thousands injured in the latest protests against Indian rule, sparked by the killing of a popular rebel leader in a gun battle with soldiers on July 8.
The government has been coming under growing pressure over the level of casualties and over the security forces’ use of shotguns loaded with pellets which can blind demonstrators.
Thousands of angry demonstrators defied a curfew on Saturday in Kashmir to attend the funeral of a schoolboy whose body was found riddled with pellets, sparking fresh clashes.
Kashmir has been divided between India and Pakistan since the two gained independence from British rule in 1947.
On Sunday, residents of Uri town saw smoke billowing from the nearby army base after dawn and heard continuous rounds of heavy gunfire that lasted several hours, while army helicopters circled overhead.
The attack comes months after militants launched an audacious attack in January on an Indian air force base in the northern state of Punjab that left seven soldiers dead.
India blamed that attack on a Pakistani-based militant group. It came days after Modi embarked on a landmark visit to Pakistan, raising hopes of improved ties.
Rebel groups which have been fighting Indian troops in Kashmir since 1989 seek either independence for the region or its merger with Pakistan.
Soldiers have been deployed in Kashmir for decades and currently number around 500,000.