India detains 23 men with suspected links to group behind deadly Kashmir attack

Indian forces have detained 23 men suspected of links to the Pakistan-based militant group that masterminded the bombing of an Indian security convoy that killed 44 paramilitary police, a top police official said on Sunday.

Deadliest attack on Indian security forces in decades killed 44

Members of various Indian Hindu organizations light candles as they pay tribute to the Indian soldiers killed in Thursday's attack on a paramilitary convoy in Kashmir. (Channi Anand/Associated Press)

Indian forces have detained 23 men suspected of links to the Pakistan-based militant group that masterminded the bombing of an Indian security convoy that killed 44 paramilitary police in Kashmir, a top police official said on Sunday.

The 23 men included members and sympathizers of Jaish-e-Mohammad, the militant group which has claimed responsibility for Thursday's attack, the deadliest on Indian security forces in decades.

The attack has fuelled tensions between India and Pakistan, and led to a backlash against some Kashmiris living in other parts of India.

India has demanded Pakistan close down the Jaish and other Islamist militant groups that operate from its soil, while Islamabad has rejected suggestions it was linked to the attack. Pakistan has denied any role in the killings.

Suspects questioned about bombing

Kashmir, a Muslim-majority region that is the subject of decades of hostility, is claimed in its entirety by both India and Pakistan, but is ruled in part by both countries.

Representatives of India's National Investigating Agency questioned the suspects about the bombing on Sunday, two security officials said.

A policeman stands guard during a curfew in Jammu, Kashmir. (Mukesh Gupta/Reuters)

"They are trying to reach out to the top commanders of Jaish-e-Mohammad, including its Kashmir chief," one of the sources said.

Mohammed Umair, the commander of the Jaish in Kashmir who is believed to have plotted the attack, is suspected to be hiding in the region where the attacks took place, the officials said.

India promised strong response

The officials say Umair had "radicalized and motivated" the Kashmiri school dropout who rammed a car laden with explosives into the convoy on Thursday.

Umair is thought to have entered Indian Kashmir from Pakistan in September to head the Jaish in the region. Security forces suspect he is in hiding in southern Kashmir, according to the officials, who could not be named as a matter of policy.

Indian officials say Umair is a nephew of the chief of the Jaish, Masood Azhar, who is believed to be in Pakistan.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has promised a strong response to the attack and says he has given the military a free hand to tackle cross-border militancy.

Kamran Bokhari, a national security and foreign policy expert with Washington's Center for Global Policy and the University of Ottawa, told CBC News that because Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party will soon face a spring general election, "there is a domestic political imperative on the government to respond with vigour."

Seeking source of explosives

The Jaish, considered to be one of the most lethal militant groups, has expanded its presence in Kashmir, the police officer said.

India has raided the houses of suspected militants across South Kashmir to find information on those who masterminded and executed the attack.

Muzaffar Ahmad Malik, whose brother declared himself a militant a year ago, told Reuters that his house was raided on Saturday by Indian troops.

Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) soldiers pay tribute to their colleague Maneswar Basumatary, who was killed in Thursday's bombing in Kashmir, at the air force station in Gauhati, India. (Anupam Nath/Associated Press)

"They were looking for militants, as they said that they had information about militants hiding in the house," Malik said.

Investigators are now trying to figure out how a large quantity of explosives used in the attack was smuggled into Kashmir, the officials said.

A spokesperson for the ministry of home affairs declined to comment.

Backlash against Kashmiris

As the bodies of the paramilitary policemen who died in the attack were returned to families across India this weekend, passionate crowds waving Indian flags gathered in the streets to honour the victims and shouted demands for revenge. 

Some Kashmiri Muslims, meanwhile, said they were facing a backlash in Hindu-majority India, mainly in the northern states of Haryana and Uttarakhand, forcing the federal interior ministry to issue an advisory to all states.

"The ministry has taken a stringent view and has issued an advisory to all states and union territories to ensure safety and security of Kashmiris, and to maintain communal harmony," A. Bharat Bhushan Babu, a ministry spokesperson, told Reuters.

Kashimiri students reported incidents of harassment and evictions from their homes. The Jammu & Kashmir state administration late on Sunday advised students from the state to reach out to liaison officers across six regions of the country in case of any problems. It said 104 students who were staying in private accommodations in the Ambala district of Haryana had been moved to hostels of a university guarded by police.

It said some Kashmiri students from Dehradun, the capital of neighbouring Uttarakhand, were being accommodated in a state guest house in New Delhi.

With files from CBC News