DODA, India – A wave of violence by Islamic militants aimed at Kashmir's Hindu minority has left 35 dead, police said Monday, days ahead of a planned meeting between the divided region's political separatists and India's prime minister.
In one village, militants disguised as soldiers coaxed wary residents from their homes and then gunned down 22 of them — the single bloodiest attack by Islamic rebels in Kashmir since a 2003 cease-fire between India and Pakistan.
Separately, 13 shepherds were abducted over the weekend in Kashmir's Udhampur district. Four were found dead Sunday and the bodies of the nine others were discovered Monday afternoon, said a senior police officer, Rajesh Singh.
Reacting to the village attack, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh suggested the killings would not hamper efforts to find peace in the Himalayan region divided between India and Pakistan, saying: "People of Kashmir have rejected and rebuffed terrorists repeatedly."
India has repeatedly accused Pakistan of backing the militants, even as the two rivals have talked peace. Singh, however, stopped short of blaming Islamabad for the attack.
A spokeswoman for Pakistan's Foreign Ministry, Tasnim Aslam, said the killings were "an act of terrorism and we condemn it."
Witnesses said more than a half dozen assailants, some in army uniforms, slipped into the village of Thava after dark Sunday and, using local guides, told people they had come to meet residents.
"When we assembled outside the home of the village head ... they showered bullets on us," said Gyan Chand, one of five people wounded in the attack. He spoke from a hospital in the town of Doda, near Thava, about 615 miles (380 miles) north of India's capital, New Delhi.
Following the attack, survivors rushed to alert a nearby army camp, but the assailants fled before security forces arrived, said Sheesh Pal Vaid, a police inspector-general.
For centuries, Kashmir's Hindus — known as Pandits — lived peacefully alongside the region's Muslim majority.
But the Pandits have been targeted relentlessly by Islamic insurgents who have been fighting since 1989 to wrest Kashmir from largely Hindu India. Most have fled, many to squalid refugee camps in safer parts of India. An estimated 2,000 Pandits have been killed in the insurgency, which has claimed nearly 67,000 lives.
The remaining 25,000 Pandits left in Kashmir — a tenth of the pre-insurgency population — are subject to frequent attacks, and many live in fear of the militants.
"Anything can strike us anytime. It is frightening, but life goes on," said B.L. Warikoo, a Pandit in Srinagar, the summer capital of India's part of Kashmir.
A leader of Kashmir's political separatist movement, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, called the attack on the Thava "a deplorable and heinous act."
His group, the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, is to take part in a previously planned meeting Wednesday between Kashmiri political separatists and Singh.
"I hope we are able to find a way out of this mindless death and destruction," Farooq said.
The state's deputy chief minister, Muzaffar Hussain Beig, said the "terrorists" were "bent upon marring the fragile peace and security in the region. But the peace process is irreversible and cannot be sabotaged."
However, the largest Islamic militant group, Hezb-ul-Mujahedeen, claimed in a statement to Kashmir's Current News Service that Indian intelligence agents carried out the killings as an "attempt to defame" the insurgents.
A variety of militant groups have been fighting for Kashmir's independence or its merger with Pakistan since 1989.
Kashmir has been at the center of two of the three wars fought by the rivals since their independence from Britain in 1947.