Uri, Sep 18 (IANS): Terrorists sneaked into an army camp here in Jammu and Kashmir early on Friday and slaughtered 17 soldiers in the worst attack on a military centre in the state in a decade.
Over two dozen soldiers were also injured in the audacious attack that left all four heavily-armed militants who barged into the camp near Uri town at 5.30 a.m. dead after two-and-a-half hours, military officials said.
Echoing the nation's anguish, Prime Minister Narendra Modi strongly condemned the "cowardly terror attack" and assured "the nation that those behind this despicable attack will not go unpunished".
Modi refrained from saying who was to blame for the bloodbath but Home Minister Rajnath Singh held Pakistan responsible.
"I am deeply disappointed with Pakistan's continued and direct support to terrorism and terrorist groups. Pakistan is a terrorist state and it should be identified and isolated as such," the minister tweeted.
Uri is close to the Line of Control (LoC), which divides Jammu and Kashmir between India and Pakistan. The camp is close to the headquarters of army's 12 Brigade.
According to military sources, the terrorists entered the camp from the rear after cutting the barbed wire fencing -- without the sentries getting alerted.
After entering the camp, the gunmen resorted to indiscriminate automatic gunfire from AK-47 rifles after quickly spreading in different directions inside to inflict maximum damage.
They also hurled grenades at tents where soldiers were asleep, catching them unawares.
The maximum casualties were reportedly caused not by AK-47s but after the grenades set off explosives stored inside the tented accommodation.
The exact number of troops inside the camp at the time of the attack was not known but one source estimated there must have been around 200 because most of the infantry battalion is deployed on the LoC.
The sneak attack sent huge columns of black smoke rising into the sky.
A terse statement issued by the Northern Command based at Udhampur said "heavily armed terrorists targeted the rear administrative base of a unit at Uri.
"In the counter action, four terrorists have been eliminated and combing operations are in progress.
"The administrative base had a large strength of troops of units turning over after their tour of duty who were stationed in tents/temporary shelters which caught fire and resulted in heavy casualties.
"We salute the sacrifices of 17 soldiers who were martyred in the operation."
Unofficial sources said most of the dead soldiers were from the Bihar Regiment. Two soldiers of the Dogra Regiment also died.
After the fighting died down, soldiers continued to comb the camp looking for other militants who may be hiding as well as explosives they may have planted.
No guerrilla group claimed responsibility for the bloodbath. But some reports said the guerrillas had recently infiltrated into the Indian side of the LoC from Pakistan.
A military expert, retired Lt. Gen. Raj Kadyan, said it was time to teach Pakistan a lesson.
Calling the attack the "most serious in the last decade", he said: "The response required today is a tough one. The army should launch a strike at a place and time of its choosing. Retribution should be quick and severe."
Helicopters flew the injured soldiers from Uri to the army's base hospital in Srinagar, about 70 km away.
Within hours, army chief General Dalbir Singh flew to Srinagar and then went to Uri.
In a related development, Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh cancelled his visit to the US and Russia. He later presided over a high-level meeting also attended by National Security Advisor Ajit Doval.
"Keeping the situation of Jammu and Kashmir in mind and in the wake of the terror attack in Uri, I have postponed my visits to Russia and the US."
He also spoke to Jammu and Kashmir Governor N.N. Vohra and Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti. "They have apprised me of the security situation in the state," he said.