DELHI (Reuters/AFP) - A powerful bomb placed in a briefcase outside the High Court in New Delhi killed at least 11 people and wounded 76 on Wednesday in an attack authorities said was claimed by a South Asian militant group linked to al Qaeda.
The bomb dug a crater three to four feet deep near the main reception counter where passes are issued for lawyers and visitors to enter the sprawling sandstone building before the main security checkpoint.
Authorities said they are investigating a claim of responsibility allegedly made by the Harkat-ul-Jihad Islami (HUJI) militant group - an al Qaeda affiliate with bases in Pakistan and Bangladesh. Ilyas Kashmiri, who US authorities believe was recently killed in Pakistan, was the head of the group and senior al Qaeda member.
A total of 11 people have been confirmed dead and 76 injured, Delhi police spokesman Rajan Bhagat said, adding that sketches of two suspects were being prepared from eye-witness accounts.
An attack in broad daylight at such a high-profile location, which lacked CCTV cameras and had faulty security scanners, quickly led critics to question the authorities readiness especially as it came ahead of the September 11, 2001 anniversary of attacks in the United States.
Notice that this comes just days before 9/11, so the government should have expected something like this, said independent strategic analyst Maj Gen Ashok Mehta.
In an email to the National Investigation Agency (NIA), the South Asian militant group called on India to repeal the death sentence of a man convicted in connection with an attack on the Indian parliament in 2001 and warned it would otherwise target major courts in the country.
In May, a low-intensity blast outside the same High Court in Delhi triggered panic but injured no one.
That mail has to be looked at very seriously because HUJI is a very prominent terrorist group among whose targets India is one, NIA chief SC Sinha told reporters.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is currently on an official visit to Bangladesh, the first by an Indian premier in 12 years. The militant group has bases in that country.
I have heard the sad news from Delhi. This is a cowardly act of a terrorist nature, but we will deal with it. We will never succumb to the pressure of terrorism, Singh told reporters in Dhaka. Forensic evidence initially showing nitrate based explosives with possible traces of pentaerythritol tetranitrate (PETN), a powerful high explosive, a senior home ministry official said.
Sketches of two suspects have been released to the public.
Lawyers in black suits and starched white collars stood around shocked on one of the busiest days of the week when the court hears public interest petitions.
About 120 soldiers, police and bomb squad specialists were at the scene, with ambulances whisking the injured away to hospitals.
I was near the gate at that time, said lawyer KK Gautam. There was an orderly queue when a loud blast occurred. I saw many injured and dead. I saw 20-25 injured and around 10 dead.
The court building compound is in a leafy, usually tranquil and upscale part of the city. The outside gate is usually manned by a handful of policemen armed with automatic rifles and hand-held scanners.
Television images showed scores of lawyers running from one of the main gates of the building just after the explosion amid rubble and chaotic scenes. Police cordoned off the area, not far from parliament and the prime ministers office.
I think I saw this guy (suspect). He was in white, aged 34 or 35, carrying a briefcase and jumping the long queue, an unnamed middle-aged man told Indian television channels.
There must have been some 80 people at that time when the bomb went off. I crouched immediately but the man behind me, he did not and was hit (by shrapnel) to his right arm.
The blast will renew concern about the ability of authorities to prevent attacks, particularly in sensitive, high-risk areas.
It comes as security has been stepped up as parliament is in session and ahead of the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks.
The last bombs in the Indian capital were in September 2008, when a series of blasts in several upmarket shopping areas killed 22 people and injured nearly 100.
A home-grown militant outfit called the Indian Mujahideen claimed it was behind that attack.
India has made efforts to improve domestic security since the 2008 Mumbai attacks, in which 10 gunmen laid siege to the city, killing 166 people.
But experts say security forces still suffer from weak grassroots intelligence gathering.
The High Court has been targeted before. In May this year a low-intensity device was set off in the parking lot but there were no casualties and only minimal damage.
Other recent bombings include a blast in February last year at a packed restaurant in the western city of Pune which killed 16 people including several foreigners.
APP adds: Pakistan on Wednesday strongly condemned bombing outside the New Delhi High Court. The Foreign Office said in a statement issued here that President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani have condemned the bombing outside the New Delhi High Court that has led to loss of life and injuries.
The statement further stated that Pakistani leadership have expressed their deepest sympathies to the families of victims of the bombing, to the government and the people of India.
They expressed the hope that the perpetrators of this heinous act would be brought to justice.