updated 8/15/2004 3:51:52 AM ET 2004-08-15T07:51:52

A bomb exploded during an Independence Day parade in India's remote northeast on Sunday, killing at least 15 people, officials said, just an hour after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh pledged to fight terrorism.

The outlawed United Liberation Front of Asom was suspected of being behind the attack in Assam state and a second one later in the area, said Assam Inspector General of Police Khagen Sharma.

Dilip Saikia, a local lawmaker, said 15 people were killed in the powerful blast in the grounds of a local college in Dhemaji, where the parade was being held. Most of the dead were school children, who had come to see the parade, Saikia told The Associated Press over telephone from Dhemaji. The remote town is 1,015 miles northeast of New Delhi.

An hour before the blast, another explosion took place in the nearby town of Dhakuakhana minutes before a parade could start there. There were no casualties, Sharma said.

The United Liberation Front of Asom had called for a boycott of the celebrations marking India's 57th anniversary of independence from British rule. The group has been fighting for a separate homeland since 1979. The insurgency has left more than 10,000 dead in the past decade.

Pledge against terrorism
In New Delhi earlier in the morning, Singh said his government would take a tough stand on terrorism.

“We will fight terrorism forcefully. Let there be no doubt about it. But if a group is ready to give up arms and talk to us, we are ready," Singh said, speaking at the Red Fort, a tradition followed by each prime minister since India gained independence from two centuries of British colonial rule on Aug. 15, 1947.

Singh said cross-border terrorism is hindering the India-Pakistan peace process, but promised to continue efforts to end five decades of hostility between the South Asian nuclear-armed neighbors.

"It is our intention to carry forward with firm resolve and sincerity the composite dialogue process with Pakistan," Singh said.

Helicopters patrolled the skies while nearly 65,000 police and paramilitary troops were deployed on the ground to prevent any terrorist attack in the capital. The police blocked streets throughout central New Delhi and the airspace over the city was closed to aircraft for five hours.

India accuses Pakistan of training and arming the Islamic militants, a charge Pakistan denies. More than 65,000 people have been killed in the conflict since 1989.

The separatists have been fighting in Jammu-Kashmir state to break away from Hindu-majority India and join the Islamic nation of Pakistan.

An umbrella group of separatist organizations, the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, called for a general protest strike in Kashmir on Sunday, as they do each Independence Day, to express their rejection of Indian sovereignty.

After coming close to fighting a fourth war in 2002, Pakistan and India embarked on a peace process aimed at resolving their differences, including their conflicting claims to all of Jammu-Kashmir, which is divided between them.

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