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Saturday, August 12, 2006

India on high alert over terror fears ahead of national holiday

NEW DELHI (AFP) - Indian authorities stepped up security nationwide, fearing terror attacks ahead of the country's Independence Day holiday and a Hindu festival, officials said.

In the capital, a massive police force was guarding the 17th-century Red Fort from where Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will address the country during Tuesday's Independence Day celebrations.

"Intelligence inputs received in the past indicated renewed determination of various terrorist outfits ... to target political leaders and symbols of national importance," security commissioner Ajay Chadha told reporters in New Delhi on Saturday.

Extra forces were deployed to guard parliament and other "sensitive buildings" -- railway stations, markets and cinemas and at temples for Wednesday's Janamashtami festival when Hindus celebrate the birth of Lord Krishna.

Security is normally high ahead of Independence Day when India gained freedom from British rule in 1947.

But this year, authorities were taking no chances after the US Embassy in New Delhi on Friday warned of possible Al-Qaeda attacks in the nation's capital and in financial hub Mumbai.

Security was intensified at airports nationwide after Britain said on Thursday it had foiled a terror attempt to blow up airlines headed for the United States from London's Heathrow airport.

Commandos were stationed on the tarmac of airports and sniffer dogs with their handlers checked for explosives.

In revolt-hit Indian Kashmir, Bakshi Stadium -- the main venue for Independence Day celebrations and a top target of militants -- was sealed off.

Checkpoints were set up at intersections in summer capital Srinagar to search vehicles for explosives and verify passenger identities.

India's insurgency-racked northeast where a landmine attack on police commandos late Friday killed six policemen was also on high alert. Around a dozen insurgent groups have called for a general strike to protest Tuesday's national day festivities.

In Mumbai where 183 people were killed and over 800 injured in serial bombings last month, police were scanning public places for possible explosives.

Militants battling New Delhi's rule in Indian Kashmir often step up attacks in days ahead of the Independence Day and Hindu festivals, police say.

In October, ahead of Hinduism's main festival, Diwali, serial bombings in New Delhi markets killed 62 people.

New Delhi accuses nuclear rival Pakistan of fomenting violence in India but Islamabad denies the charge.

Relations between the nuclear-armed rivals have cooled since the Mumbai blasts that New Delhi alleged were carried out with the help of "elements across the border" in Pakistan. Pakistan has rejected the accusation and offered to help in India's investigation into the bombings.

More police units were pressed into service and additional bunkers set up in the northern town of Agra, home to the famed 17th-century Taj Mahal monument.

Police said they had increased surveillance in eastern Kolkata, where five guards at the American Centre were killed in an attack by suspected Islamic militants on the facility in January 2001.

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