Three bomb blasts ripped through crowded Mumbai streets at dusk, killing 17 and wounding more than 100, in a gruesome echo of the Islamic terrorist attacks that paralyzed India's commercial centre three years ago.
In Mumbai's shattered streets, enraged Indians blamed Pakistani-linked Islamic jihadists.
If, as many suspect, Wednesday's attackers are eventually linked to Pakistan, it will plunge South Asia into a new and dangerous crisis.
Islamabad's shaky government was already reeling from internal strife and outside accusations that its security services continue to play a double game – giving clandestine support to violent Islamic extremists even as they claim to be at the forefront of the war against terrorism.
"This was a co-ordinated attack by terrorists," India's Home Minister, Palaniappan Chidambaram, said.
The attack – near-simultaneous explosions using bombs hidden in bicycles, an umbrella and a car against so-called "soft" targets, crowded bazaars and street markets – bore the hallmarks of previous attacks by the Indian Mujahedeen, an Islamic extremist group based in India that has also been linked to the Pakistani-based Lashkar-e-Taiba.
No group claimed responsibility but Pakistan quickly sought to distance itself from the bombings. "President Asif Ali Zardari, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, the government and the people of Pakistan have condemned the blasts in Mumbai," a communiqué released in Islamabad said.
Still much early suspicion fell on Lashkar-e-Taiba, the extremist group with ties to Pakistan's shadowy and powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency. It was LeT that staged the stunning, co-ordinated series of attacks in Mumbai in 2008, when 10 gunmen invaded from the port, seized luxury hotels and killed more than 160. That raid derailed peace talks between the nuclear-armed South Asian adversaries that have fought three wars since partition.
Wednesday's bombings threatened a new crisis.
"This is as tense as it can get for Pakistan," said Stephen Saideman, holder of the Canada Research Chair in International Security and Ethnic Conflict at McGill University in Montreal.
"It's too early to know … but I wouldn't be surprised if the ISI was involved," Mr. Saideman said.
Islamabad is already smarting from the humiliation of a U.S. special forces raid that killed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, who had lived for years in a Pakistan military garrison town. Few, inside or outside Pakistan, doubt his presence was known to at least some elements within ISI, which has long maintained ties to the Taliban and other radical groups. Pakistan is also suffering mounting violence in Karachi, a series of extremist attacks on military bases and is under intense pressure internally and externally.
Angered by what it regards as an increasingly unreliable ally, the Obama administration cut $800-million in military aid to Pakistan last week while America's chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, publicly accused the Pakistan government of sanctioning the murder of investigative journalists poking around the ISI.
``Islamabad and Washington have lurched from crisis to crisis all year," said Daniel Markey, Senior Fellow for India, Pakistan and South Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. ``At root, the two sides continue to have fundamental disagreements over Pakistan's continued use of militant proxy forces as "strategic assets" in neighbouring Afghanistan and India. Washington believes Pakistan remains only a partial partner, fighting some terrorists tooth and nail, while turning a blind eye to others."
The three blasts during evening rush hour in India's teeming financial and entertainment centre left scores of wounded and dazed lying among the dead. The first blast hit the Zaveri jewellery bazaar, minutes later there was a second explosion near the Opera House and the third bomb went off near one of Mumbai's railway stations in the central Dadar district.
Gruesome photographs of charred and dismembered victims quickly circulated on the Internet, as did an outpouring of offers from the people of Mumbai to help. Angry crowds gathered and chanted "Death to Mohammad Ajmal Amir Kasab," the sole surviving Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorist from the 2008 attack. Although sentenced to death, he remains in prison and they vented their fury at the Pakistani-based group.
Pakistan's ISI chief, Lieutenant-General Ahmed Shuja Pasha, is set to arrive in Washington Thursday for talks aimed at patching up frayed relations. But with nasty spats over drone strikes, a CIA agent that killed a pair of Pakistanis and Islamabad's decision to kick hundreds of U.S. "trainers" out of the country, there was much mutual distrust to overcome.
Pakistan has, in previous moments of internal stress, raised the confrontational stakes with arch-rival India to divert public anger to an external and familiar enemy.
In the wake of Wednesday's bombs in Mumbai, the Obama administration was quick to voice sorrow and support for India, now America's foremost friend in South Asia, which also infuriates Islamabad.
"India is a close friend and partner of the United States," President Barack Obama said. ``The American people will stand with the Indian people … and we will offer support to India's efforts to bring the perpetrators of these terrible crimes to justice."
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said her planned trip to India next week will go ahead to "reaffirm our commitment to the shared struggle against terrorism."
"The attack comes at a critical juncture in U.S.-Pakistani relations as the United States is trying to accelerate a withdrawal of its military forces in Afghanistan," said a preliminary assessment from Stratfor, the private global intelligence group based in Austin, Texas. "The 2008 Mumbai attacks revealed the extent to which traditional Pakistan-based Islamist militant groups … had collaborated with transnational jihadist elements like al-Qaeda in trying to instigate a crisis between Islamabad and New Delhi."
In Ottawa, Jean-François Lacelle, a Foreign Affairs spokesman, said there have been no reports of Canadians being affected by the blasts.
On Thursday, Mr. Chidambaram, India's Home Minister, lowered the casualty toll to 17 confirmed deaths and 131 injuries. He said a severed head was found that could be an 18th casualty. He did not explain the discrepancy from an earlier government statement that confirmed 21 deaths.
With a file from The Associated Press