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Bombay Perplexed Over Aim of Bombings

Long immune to sectarian passions seen elsewhere, India's financial capital has emerged as the country's most vulnerable and volatile locale

A WAVE of bombings in Bombay has raised questions about whether India's financial capital is being targeted by terrorists within or outside the country, and left bewildered residents wondering what the bombers could hope to gain by the attacks.

A 154-minute wave of bombings in 10 Bombay commercial sites midday Friday killed more than 235 people and injured 1,225. Another live bomb, which police say may have been left over from Friday's attacks, was found mounted in a motor scooter near a train station here yesterday.

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Government investigators have just begun to sift through the rubble at the 10 bomb sites, which included the Bombay Stock Exchange, the offices of Air India, and three top hotels, but they have already concluded the bombs were powerful enough to be plastic explosives. That fact, combined with the sophistication of the operation, has led the government to say the bombings may have been planned or supported by terrorist organizations outside India.

"We just don't know where the trail will stop," Prime Minister P. V. Narasimha Rao said Saturday. "There is a definite possibility it will not stop at the shores of India." He called the bombings an attempt to destroy India's economy. "When you talk about Bombay you talk about the economic nerve center of India and this is where they struck." No arrests have been announced.

Along with bewilderment, there is a palpable sense of relief in Bombay that the enemy may be from outside, rather than a too-familiar internal enemy: India's growing Hindu nationalist movement. In December and January, the city was torn by sectarian conflicts that killed more than 700.

The December riots were sparked by protests over the demolition of a disputed Muslim shrine in northern India by militant Hindu groups.

The January riots were far worse: They were meticulously planned by a powerful local Hindu group, the Shiv Sena, that killed or drove Muslim families from their homes. There were 500 casualties and at least 20,000 people, mostly Muslims, were forced to flee Bombay.

Those twin waves of hatred severely hurt Bombay, which is one of India's success stories, an industrial and financial center that has drawn millions of migrants hoping to escape poverty.

For decades, Bombay considered itself more sophisticated than the rest of India and immune to the sectarian passions that flare in smaller cities and rural areas. But since December Bombay has emerged as one of the country's most vulnerable and volatile locales.

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"Now everyone says Bombay is unsafe," says Ganesh Salyan, an executive who has lived in the city for 30 years.

The government says there were two types of blasts Friday: six smaller explosions in hotel rooms, on a bus, and in public places, plus four major explosions, including one at the Bombay Stock Exchange building.

That blast resembled last month's attack on the World Trade Center in New York. The 28-story Stock Exchange building is the prime symbol of Bombay's leadership of the Indian economy. The bomb was probably made of plastic explosives placed in a car in the underground garage.

According to the government, the bombings may have been a joint effort between groups. This suggests complicity between some regional group, like the militant separatists of Punjab, Kashmir, or neighboring Sri Lanka, with backing from a terrorist organization in the Middle East. While car bombs and plastic explosives have been used by local militant groups in the past, no group has ever used them in such quantity or lethal combination before.

In addition, Pakistan's security agency, Inter-Services Intelligence, is a prime suspect. Lal Krishna Advani, a top leader of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, the largest opposition party in Parliament, blamed Pakistan directly. "This blast," he said at a Bombay press conference, "is a war waged by Pakistan through a different means - a war without the normal risks of war."

But no theory has accounted for the seemingly symbolic choice of sites for the blasts. The location of the bombings could have been far more lethal. Instead, nearly all were placed in areas that would be familiar to the average business traveler: an airline office, three luxury hotels, the stock exchange.

The involvement of Muslim, Kashmiri militants or Middle Eastern governments would suggest religious motives, such as a reprisal for the killings of Muslims throughout India since December and their forced migrations from Bombay. But no blasts occurred in neighborhoods dominated by one religion or another. Only one of the smaller blasts can be construed as anti-Hindu; it occurred near the headquarters of the Shiv Sena, the Bombay-based group that organized the anti-Muslim pogrom in January.

Similarly, if Pakistan wished to create mass panic or serious destruction in Bombay, more strategic sites would more likely have been targeted.

Police have held a man holding one or several forged Sri Lankan passports. But it is too early to say if this is proof of the involvement of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the Sri Lankan separatist group that was responsible for the bombing death of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991.

It is possible the terrorists expected to spark a third round of sectarian trouble. According to an editorial in The Sunday Times of India, the terrorists would not have struck "had our country not been polarized so sharply along [sectarian] lines."

Bombay residents say they feared just such a reaction. But life quickly got back to normal the following day. Most people went to work, sometimes detouring to visit the bomb sites to satisfy their curiousity.

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