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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Bomb Blast on Indian Train Kills 12

AMBALA, India -- A powerful bomb exploded in a sleeper compartment in a train in northern India early on Monday, killing 12 passengers and injuring 37 in what police said could mark a surge in separatist violence in Punjab state.

The blast and ensuing fire destroyed the sleeper coach and damaged an adjoining carriage at Ambala cantonment station near Chandigarh, capital of the northern state of Punjab, railway manager R.S. Grover said.

"It was a powerful bomb planted in one of the bogies [carriages]," Ambala police chief Rajbir Deswal said.

There were no immediate claims of responsibility. But police said they feared the bomb blast could be part of an escalation of violence ahead of state assembly elections in Punjab due by next February.

"It could be a revival of militant activity because of pending elections in Punjab," senior police officer Satyendra Kumar told Reuters in Ambala town.

In the 1980s, Punjab state was torn by a Sikh separatist rebellion in which at least 20,000 people died.

Police said a senior leader of a splinter group of the regional Akali Dal party was gunned down on Sunday night.

Bachittar Singh, a former state legislator from the Akali Dal faction, was ambushed by five gunmen who opened fire on the jeep in which he was travelling in Ropar district of Punjab, about 20 kilometers from Chandigarh, they said.

The Akali Dal is the political arm of many Sikhs who oppose separatist violence in the state, sometimes called India's food basket.

Separatist militancy has largely died down in Punjab, which held its last state assembly elections in 1992 under tight security and amid a boycott by separatist groups.

"These two incidents have put us on alert," Kumar said, referring to the bomb blast and the politician's murder.

Railway officials said there were 61 passengers in the second class sleeper carriage when the bomb exploded. Thirty-five had boarded the train in the western city of Pune.

After battling the blaze, rescuers pulled 10 bodies from the charred train. Two passengers died later.

Thirty-seven people were taken to hospital. Eight were later discharged, while four were in serious condition, regional railway manager Manoj Akhori said.

Akhori said the 1077 Jhelum Express was coming from Pune in the western state of Maharashtra and was heading towards Jammu, winter capital of the troubled northern state of Jammu and Kashmir. Some Hindu pilgrims heading to Jammu were on board.

He said the 18-carriage train arrived in Ambala cantonment station at 1:55 a.m. and was about to leave for Ludhiana when the bomb exploded at 2:40 a.m. in the sixth carriage from the tail end of the train.

Earlier, Grover said the the explosion occurred at 3:07 a.m. "We couldn't enter this coach for two hours because it was burning. It was red hot," Kumar said.

The charred carriage stood by platform six outside the main station, a tangled mass of melted steel. Police said the death toll could have been higher if the train had pulled alongside a platform within the main station.

The damaged carriages were later separated from the train, which left Ambala for Jammu.

Jammu and Kashmir state, which neighbours Punjab, has been rocked by a separatist Moslem rebellion which militants launched in 1990. Police and hospital officials estimate that more than 20,000 people have died in the Kashmir revolt.