Blast Kills Nine, Wounds 56 in Indian-Held Kashmir

A grenade explosion and gunfire at an election rally in Indian-held Kashmir (search) killed nine people Thursday and wounded at least 56, including the state's tourism and finance ministers, police said.

The rally was being held by the state's governing People's Democratic Party ahead of national parliamentary elections to begin April 20.

Police said they suspected Islamic militants in the attack, and a man who said he was with the little-known rebel group Save Kashmir Movement (search) quickly claimed responsibility.

But the president of the PDP said she didn't believe insurgents were behind the assault in the border town of Uri, 60 miles north of Srinagar, the summer capital of Jammu-Kashmir state (search).

Eight civilians and a police officer were killed and at least 56 people were wounded, according to Dr. S. Jalal, administrator of the Sher-e-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences, where most of the wounded were being treated.

State Finance Minister Muzaffar Baig and Tourism Minister Ghulam Hasan Mir were among those hurt. Their injuries were not life threatening, police officer Junaid Ahmed said.

Some security officials blamed militants fighting for the independence of Kashmir or its merger with neighboring Pakistan for the attack. The insurgents have opposed India's elections, and have called for voter boycott.

"These are attempts to derail both the peace process and the poll process," said Jammu-Kashmir's Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed. "But we are determined to defeat such intentions."

Minutes after the explosions and gunfire, PDP president Mehbooba Mufti, surrounded by bodyguards, told Associated Press Television News that she believed the attack was carried out by those opposing the reopening of a crucial highway between the capitals of divided Kashmir.

The Himalayan region is divided between India and Pakistan. Both claim the entire territory, and have fought two wars over it.

"We know which elements are responsible for this. Militants are not behind it. They don't operate in Uri area," Mufti said. "This happened because some people do not want the highway to Muzaffarabad to reopen."

During an ongoing thaw in relations between India and Pakistan, both sides have talked about launching a bus service on the Muzaffarabad Highway, which runs from Srinagar to the capital of Pakistani-controlled Kashmir.

Some Kashmiris believe the federal government and army are privately opposed to reopening the highway because it would create logistical problems and possibly even help the militants.

The state Interior Minister A.R. Veeri said it was too early to say who was behind the attack.

"It is a matter of investigation. We have ordered an inquiry into it and it will only be possible to identify culprits after the investigations are done," Veeri told The Associated Press.