At least 34 Indian paramilitary soldiers have been killed in a bomb attack by militants on their convoy in Indian-administered Kashmir.
Police told the BBC that a car filled with explosives rammed a bus carrying the troops to the main city of Srinagar on Thursday.
The Pakistan-based Islamist group Jaish-e Mohammad claimed responsibility for the attack on a convoy of the Central Reserve Police Force on the heavily guarded Srinagar-Jammu highway about 20km (12 miles) from Srinagar, a local news agency said.
It is the deadliest attack on Indian forces in disputed Kashmir for years.
Thursday’s explosion was heard from several miles away, according to witnesses. Mohammad Yunis, a journalist who reached the site minutes later, told Reuters he saw blood and body parts scattered along a 100-metre stretch of the highway.
A Jaish-e-Mohammad spokesman, in a statement carried by GNS new agency, said dozens of security force vehicles were destroyed in the attack.
“It’s not yet clear how many vehicles were in the convoy. A car overtook the convoy and rammed into a bus with 44 personnel on board,” a senior police official told BBC Urdu’s Riyaz Masroor.
The official said the death toll might increase because dozens were “critically injured”. The Central Reserve Police Force confirmed to the BBC that at least 34 of its personnel had been killed in the attack.
Kashmir is a Muslim-majority region at the heart of decades of hostility between India and Pakistan, which both claim the entire territory as theirs while ruling part of it.
The last major attack was in 2016 when militants raided an Indian army camp in Uri that killed 20 soldiers. Tension with Pakistan rose after New Delhi said the attackers had come from Pakistan to stage the attack.
Pakistan denied any involvement.
Jaish-e-Mohammad, one of the most powerful militant groups operating in Kashmir, was blamed for a 2001 attack on the Indian parliament that led to India deploying its military on the border with Pakistan.
On Wednesday, an explosion at a school in Kashmir wounded a dozen students. The cause of the blast remains unclear.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said it was a “despicable” and “dastardly” attack.
Two former chief ministers of the state, Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti, have also tweeted about the attack.
Prior to Thursday’s bombing, the deadliest attack on Indian security forces in Kashmir this century came in 2002, when militants killed at least 31 people at an army base in Kaluchak near Jammu, most of them civilians and relatives of soldiers.
At least 17 Indian soldiers were killed when militants stormed a base in Uri in 2016.
Delhi blamed that attack on the Pakistan which denied any involvement.
This latest attack is likely to heighten tensions between the two nuclear-armed neighbours.
Bashir Manzar, a journalist based in Indian-administered Kashmir, said the bombing will boost the morale of militants and contradicts claims the situation in Kashmir is being brought under control.
“Over the past few months, political leaders in Srinagar and Delhi have made tall claims about how the situation in Kashmir has been normalised and hundreds of militants, including top leaders, had been killed,” he told the BBC.
“They claimed that militant groups were on the defensive and fewer people were joining their ranks.”
Both India and Pakistan claim all of Muslim-majority Kashmir but only control parts of it.
The two countries have fought three wars and a limited conflict since independence from Britain in 1947 – all but one were over Kashmir.–BBC/Reuters