New Delhi: At least 44 personnel of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) were killed and scores injured when a car laden with explosives rammed into a CRPF bus—part of a massive convoy—in Pulwama district of Jammu and Kashmir on Thursday, in one of the deadliest terror attacks yet on government forces in the border state.

The bus was carrying 51 CRPF personnel when a Mahindra Scorpio, packed with 300kg of explosives and driven by a Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) suicide bomber, rammed into it in the town of Awantipora in south Kashmir.

“There was a vehicle—either it was parked on the side or driving along the convoy. It was a suicide attack, because the driver rammed the vehicle which triggered the blast. IED (improvised explosive device) jammers are not foolproof so they could not thwart the blast. Chances of a getaway are very high for terrorists and casualties are minimal on their side. But this shows that the expertise of creating IEDs is back in J&K and explosive materials have found their way into Kashmir from Pakistan or are locally developed," a senior intelligence official said, putting the death toll at 44 and those injured at 70. The death toll could rise, the official said.

The bus was part of a huge convoy of 2,547 CRPF personnel who were travelling in 78 vehicles from Jammu to Srinagar. Civilian vehicles are also allowed on routes which see troop movement, and the CRPF convoy was taken by surprise by the SUV, which rammed into the bus, detonating the IED.

“In Latoomode, Awantipora, an IED blast occurred on a bus of the 54 batallion of the CRPF. There are some reports of grenade lobbing and firing upon the vehicles of 35 batallion and 179 batallion coming in as well," CRPF in New Delhi said in a statement.

Although intelligence agencies had warned of a possible terror strike by JeM, ground-level officials said Thursday’s attack was “unprecedented and beyond what we could imagine".

“Attack on CRPF personnel in Pulwama is despicable. I strongly condemn this dastardly attack. The sacrifices of our brave security personnel shall not go in vain. The entire nation stands shoulder to shoulder with the families of the brave martyrs. May the injured recover quickly," Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted.

While the entire convoy route from Srinagar to Udhampur (Jammu) is secured by troops deployed all along the stretch, particularly places where terror attacks can take place, the movement of civilian traffic, intelligence officials added, proved to be a major security loophole in this case.

The Pulwama terror attack marks a dangerous shift in the Kashmir conflict, with terrorists now looking increasingly at using IEDs to maximize damage on the Indian front. A team of the National Investigation Agency (NIA) is rushing to Kashmir to aid the state police in conducting a forensic examination of the attack.

Union home minister Rajnath Singh will also be travelling to Srinagar on Friday to take stock of the situation.

With nearly 400,000 troops deployed across Jammu and Kashmir, defence experts reiterated that warfare in Kashmir was undergoing a sea change.

“Terrorists in future will rely on indirect attacks or suicide bombers where damage is maximum and casualties among terrorists are minimum. Such tactics have not been used earlier because it very difficult to bring explosives from across and people trained to make IEDs had been killed by forces during 2004-05. Now the expertise has been resurrected and explosives have been brought in. So we need to be extremely cautious," said Lt. Gen (retd) H.S. Panag, a defence expert.

The damage to the Indian side with the IED blast was far heavier than the casualties from the September 2016 JeM attack on an army brigade headquarters in Uri. Nineteen army personnel were killed in that attack.

In January 2018, an IED explosion by the Jaish-e-Mohammed in Kashmir’s Sopore district killed four police personnel, while another IED was defused in January along the Srinagar-Baramulla highway.

The US Ambassador to India Ken Juster tweeted, “The US Mission in India strongly condemns today’s terrorist attack in Jammu & Kashmir. We send our heartfelt condolences to the families of the victims. The United States stands alongside India in confronting terror and defeating it."

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