Foreign militants, possibly from al-Qaida, may be planning to bomb New Delhi and Mumbai, the U.S. Embassy warned Friday, raising fears that Osama bin Laden’s network may be targeting India for its rising economic power and links to the United States.
An e-mail sent to Americans registered with the embassy said New Delhi, the capital, and Mumbai, the country’s financial and entertainment hub, were targeted for attacks around India’s Independence Day celebrations Tuesday.
The embassy warning said the “likely targets include major airports, key central Indian government offices, and major gathering places such as hotels and markets.”
It urged Americans to maintain a low profile and be alert until Wednesday.
India plays down threats
The warning prompted India to step up already tight security ahead of Independence Day, a time when militants from the country’s regional separatist movements — from Islamic militants in Kashmir to tribal guerrillas in the northeast — often launch attacks.
On the approach road to New Delhi’s international airport, guards with assault rifles stopped cars, buses and trucks, checking IDs and searching some vehicles.
Some Indian officials sought to play down the threat.
Home Secretary D.K. Duggal struck a defensive note, calling the warning “innocuous” and an internal U.S. Embassy matter.
On Thursday, British police said they had thwarted a terrorist plan to blow up U.S.-bound jetliners. The embassy warning did not appear linked to that plot.
News of the embassy warning briefly prompted a 1 percent drop in the benchmark index of the Mumbai Stock Exchange, the 30-share Sensex. It recovered later.
‘A serious message’
India’s emergence as a global economic power appears to have increased its attractiveness as a target for Islamic militant groups, more than a dozen of which are already battling New Delhi’s rule over two-thirds of Kashmir, a predominantly Muslim region split between India and Pakistan.
While some of those groups are believed to have ties to al-Qaida, the terror network has not in recent memory targeted India itself.
Some experts said India could now be a target because of its economic success and growing ties to the U.S.
“It’s a serious message from these people that we should look out if we’re going to align ourselves with the Americans,” said retired Indian Gen. Ashok Mehta.
In the past year, India has suffered bombings in New Delhi, in the Hindu holy city of Varanasi and in Mumbai. Authorities say a Pakistani militant group, Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, appears to have been involved in all those attacks. Lashkar is widely believed to have ties to al-Qaida.