HYDERABAD - Twin bombings killed at least 20 people on Thursday outside a popular cinema and bus stand in the Indian city of Hyderabad, provoking safety fears among Australia's touring cricket team.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said the perpetrators of the "dastardly act" would be punished. It came with the nation on alert after the recent hanging of a separatist unleashed protests in the Muslim-majority region of Kashmir.
The evening bombings targeted a mainly Hindu district in Hyderabad, a hub of India's computing industry in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh which hosts local offices of Google and Microsoft among other Western IT companies.
Witnesses said one of the crude devices went off around 15 yards from the entrance to the Venkatadri Cinema in the popular retail district of Dilsukh Nagar and the second exploded next to a nearby bus stop.
The first explosion went off just as movie-goers were making their way out of the cinema at the end of a show. Some had stopped at food stalls when the deafening blast went off.
A government minister said the bombs, which went off in quick succession, were planted on bicycles. The charred wreckage of parked scooters lay on the ground, mingled with the blood and footwear of victims who included two women.
Doctors struggled to treat a stream of wounded victims as bloodied patients lay on stretchers at city hospitals and anguished relatives clamoured for news of their loved ones, an AFP photographer saw.
Hyderabad is due to host a Test match between Australia and India from March 2 but a statement from the Australian side said it was now in talks with Indian authorities and stressed that the safety of its players was "paramount".
Hyderabad deputy inspector of police Shiv Kumar said there was no doubt that "this is a terror attack" while adding there had been no claim of responsibility.
Twenty people died in the attack, said Kumar, while an officer in the police control room said 82 people had been wounded.
Sreekanth Rao, a doctor at the city's Yashoda hospital, said several of those injured were in a life-threatening condition.
"Five people are being operated on. We had to amputate a 22-year-old woman's leg because that was the only way we could save her," he told AFP.
"This is a dastardly act and the guilty will not go unpunished," Prime Minister Singh said of the attacks, the most serious to hit India since 13 people died in a 2011 bombing outside the High Court in the capital New Delhi.
But Singh also appealed for "calm" in the aftermath of the Hyderabad blasts, as police struggled to keep order with large crowds massing at the scene.
N. Kiran Reddy, the chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, told reporters in Hyderabad that the blasts were intended to incite communal violence in the city, which has a large Muslim population.
"This attack is only to disturb all communities living in the city. I request people to maintain calm and they should not visit the blast site."
Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai, the top civil servant in India's external affairs ministry, did not rule out foreign involvement.
"I am not sure there is any evidence it could be homegrown terrorism. We have had a number of attacks which have been traced to inspiration or leadership outside the country," he said at a Washington think-tank.
But Mathai avoided direct criticism of nuclear-armed rival Pakistan, which New Delhi blamed for the 2008 Mumbai attacks in which 166 people were killed when Pakistani-born gunmen laid siege to the city.
US Secretary of State John Kerry said in a tweet that he had expressed his sympathies for the "brave people" of Hyderabad when he met Mathai in Washington, while the State Department condemned the "cowardly attack".
"The United States stands with India in combating the scourge of terrorism," said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.
While Hindus form the majority of the population in Hyderabad, one of India's largest and most historic cities, there is a sizeable community of Muslims living in the old quarter.
In May 2007, at least 11 people were killed in a blast at a mosque in Hyderabad and five more died when police fired at Muslim protesters.
Months later in August, at least 40 people were killed in Hyderabad when two blasts hit an auditorium and an outdoor restaurant.
It remains unclear who carried out the 2007 attacks.
The latest explosions came on the same day as India's parliament opened for its key budget session, amid tensions following the hanging earlier this month of the Kashmiri separatist, Mohammed Afzal Guru.
The execution of Guru, who had been convicted of helping to plot a 2001 attack on the Indian parliament that left 10 people dead, has driven up tensions in the Himalayan region of Kashmir, which India disputes with Pakistan.
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