NEW DELHI (Reuters) - A powerful bomb placed in a briefcase outside the High Court in New Delhi killed at least 11 people and wounded 76 on Wednesday in an attack authorities said was claimed by a South Asian militant group linked to al Qaeda.
The 2-kg bomb dug a crater three to four feet deep near the main reception counter where passes are issued for lawyers and visitors to enter the sprawling sandstone building before the main security checkpoint.
Authorities said they are investigating a claim of responsibility allegedly made by the Harkat-ul-Jihad Islami (HuJI) militant group -- an al Qaeda affiliate with bases in Pakistan and Bangladesh. Ilyas Kashmiri, who U.S. authorities believe was recently killed in Pakistan, was the head of the group and senior al Qaeda member.
An attack in broad daylight at such a high-profile location, which lacked CCTV cameras and had faulty security scanners, quickly led critics to question the authorities readiness especially as it came ahead of the Sept. 11, 2001 anniversary of attacks in the United States.
"Notice that this comes just days before 9/11, so the government should have expected something like this," said independent strategic analyst Maj. Gen. Ashok Mehta.
In an email to the National Investigation Agency (NIA), the South Asian militant group called on India to repeal the death sentence of a man convicted in connection with an attack on the Indian parliament in 2001 and warned it would otherwise target major courts in the country.
In May, a low-intensity blast outside the same High Court in Delhi triggered panic but injured no one.
"That mail has to be looked at very seriously because HUJI is a very prominent terrorist group among whose targets India is one," NIA chief S.C. Sinha told reporters.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is currently on an official visit to Bangladesh, the first by an Indian premier in 12 years. The militant group has bases in that country.
"I have heard the sad news from Delhi. This is a cowardly act of a terrorist nature, but we will deal with it. We will never succumb to the pressure of terrorism," Singh told reporters in Dhaka.
Forensic evidence initially showing nitrate based explosives with possible traces of pentaerythritol tetranitrate (PETN), a powerful high explosive, a senior home ministry official said.
Sketches of two suspects have been released to the public.
Lawyers in black suits and starched white collars stood around shocked on one of the busiest days of the week when the court hears public interest petitions.
About 120 soldiers, police and bomb squad specialists were at the scene, with ambulances whisking the injured away to hospitals.
"I was near the gate at that time," said lawyer K.K. Gautam. "There was an orderly queue when a loud blast occurred. I saw many injured and dead. I saw 20-25 injured and around 10 dead."
The court building compound is in a leafy, usually tranquil and upscale part of the city. The outside gate is usually manned by a handful of policemen armed with automatic rifles and hand-held scanners.
Television images showed scores of lawyers running from one of the main gates of the building just after the explosion amid rubble and chaotic scenes. Police cordoned off the area, not far from parliament and the prime minister's office.
"I think I saw this guy (suspect). He was in white, aged 34 or 35, carrying a briefcase and jumping the long queue," an unnamed middle-aged man told Indian television channels.
"There must have been some 80 people at that time when the bomb went off. I crouched immediately but the man behind me, he did not and was hit (by shrapnel) to his right arm."
The blast will renew concern about the ability of authorities to prevent attacks, particularly in sensitive, high-risk areas.
It comes as security has been stepped up as parliament is in session and ahead of the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks and less than two months after near-simultaneous triple bomb attacks in India's financial hub Mumbai killed 24.
No one has claimed responsibility for those attacks.
"This is a glaring example of the shortage of intelligence, both human and technical -- something if we had we could have prevented these attacks," said Ajai Sahni, executive director at the Institute for Conflict Management in New Delhi.
Two lawyers at the court, Namita Roy, 48, and Hargovind Jha, 40, told Reuters the scanner and metal detector at Gate 5 of the court where the blast occurred were not working.
"This is definitely a big security lapse on the part of the police. For example, yesterday even the (body) scanner was not working. The security, more or less, is very weak, especially in view of the blast that happened a few months ago," said Roy.
Several bomb attacks in large Indian cities in recent years have been tied to the Indian Mujahideen, said to have support from Pakistan-based militants fighting Indian rule in Kashmir.
Pakistan-based militants attacked Mumbai in coordinated assaults that killed 166 people in 2008, raising tensions with nuclear-armed arch rival Pakistan.
Singh and his government came under intense criticism over the handling of those attacks. The government promised a radical overhaul of the security apparatus in India but critics say the reforms have been inadequate and in some cases abandoned.
Writing by Paul de Bendern; additional reporting by Krittivas Mukherjee, Annie Banerji, Abhijit Neogy, Amlan Chakraborty and Frank Daniel in New Delhi and Ruma Paul in Dhaka; Editing by Ed Lane