Facebook Twitter

India tightens security in celebrating its independence

SHARE India tightens security in celebrating its independence

NEW DELHI, India — India celebrated its anniversary as a democracy Saturday under unprecedented security measures amid a tense standoff with Pakistan, sealing off the airspace over the capital and deploying tens of thousands of police for the Republic Day parade.

Most of the army troops who traditionally march through New Delhi were away at the Pakistani border, where the rivals have amassed hundreds of thousands of troops, fighter jets, guns and missiles in their biggest military buildup in decades.

Military helicopters hovered over the parade route in New Delhi and air force jets were on standby. Bomb squads with sniffer dogs scoured the streets.

With 65,000 police backed by anti-aircraft guns on the ground, buglers played as Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee paid homage to dead soldiers by laying a white floral wreath at the British-era sandstone India Gate.

President Kocheril Raman Narayanan saluted to start the parade down the Rajpath, or King's Way. After gaining independence from British colonial rulers in 1947, India adopted its constitution and became a republic on Jan. 26, 1950.

Saturday's crowd of about 8,000 was far smaller than in past years. The government had announced that the parade would be scaled down, and heavy security and traffic restrictions also kept many spectators away.

The parade came four days after a shooting attack that killed four guards at a U.S. government cultural center in Calcutta. The mood was also subdued because Saturday marked one year since a 7.9-magnitude earthquake struck the western state of Gujarat, killing more than 13,000 people.

Because of the border buildup, the customary display of the nation's military might was much smaller than usual — just an unmanned spy plane, a mobile bridging system and an Agni missile, a version of which was test-fired Friday.

The successful launch of the nuclear-capable missile drew criticism from Pakistan, the United States and other countries, which said India should have avoided the test amid the tension over attacks by Islamic militants that India says are backed by Pakistan.

Before the parade, Nayaranan presented India's highest peacetime bravery award to the families of security staff killed in the assault that prompted the military buildup, a Dec. 13 raid on the Indian Parliament that left 14 dead, including the attackers.

India blamed the attack on Pakistan's spy agency and two Pakistan-based militant groups fighting a 12-year insurgency in the Indian-ruled portion of divided Kashmir, Hindu-majority India's only mostly Muslim region.

India demanded Pakistan arrest militants, prevent cross-border attacks and extradite 20 men suspected of attacks in India. This month, Pakistani President Gen. Musharraf cracked down on militants and promised not to let Pakistan be used as a base for terrorism.

In a message to Vajpayee marking Republic Day, Musharraf offered to join India in a "serious and sustained dialogue," to ease the tension. There was no reaction Saturday from India, which rejected a similar overture earlier this month.

Since Musharraf's crackdown, Indian officials have repeatedly said they will not ease the military buildup or hold talks with Pakistan until they are convinced it has halted cross-border attacks.

There were no reports of violence Saturday in Kashmir, but an Indian official said suspected militants blew up a mobile transmitter belonging to state-run Indian television in the region Friday night.