AWANTIPORA, Kashmir — A vehicle filled with explosives rammed into a convoy of Indian paramilitary forces on a busy highway in the Indian-controlled part of Kashmir on Thursday, killing at least 40 soldiers, local officials said, in the worst attack in the disputed region in three decades.
As the death toll continued to climb Thursday evening, officials said the suicide attack, which targeted a convoy of 78 vehicles carrying some 2,500 personnel, ripped apart two buses. It happened at about 3:15 p.m. local time.
“I have never heard such a blast in my entire life,” said Qaisar Mir, a resident of Gundipoora, the village in southern Kashmir where the attack took place. “We saw smoke billowing up and then heard cries for help.”
Responsibility for the attack was claimed by Jaish-e-Muhammad, or the Army of Muhammad, a militant group that is listed as a terrorist organization by the United States Treasury Department. Although the group is formally banned in Pakistan, it operates and raises funds in the country under different names, Indian and American officials have said in the past.
The latest attack will likely raise tensions between the nuclear-armed neighbors, which have fought three wars since independence, two of them over the disputed territory.
The last time Jaish-e-Muhammad launched a major attack, in 2016, it infiltrated an Indian army base in the town of Uri, Kashmir, and killed 19 soldiers in a predawn raid. That prompted India’s military to cross the border to launch what it described as “surgical strikes” in Pakistan.
With Indian elections scheduled for this spring, Prime Minister Narendra Modi may feel compelled to act by launching another strike across the border, or risk looking weak on Kashmir, analysts say.
“I strongly condemn this dastardly attack. The sacrifices of our brave security personnel shall not go in vain,” Mr. Modi said on Twitter.
Other officials were more emphatic that there would be a price to pay and that a response was in the making.
“We will hunt them down,” said the Governor of Jammu and Kashmir, Satya Pal Malik.
But with heavy snow blanketing the mountains of Kashmir and the disputed border, an attack on targets inside Pakistan may be logistically impossible at the moment, said Rahul Bedi, a defense analyst with the London-based Jane’s Information Group.
Prime Minister “Modi has very little room to maneuver,” Mr. Bedi said. “He can come down on the Kashmiri people in a harsher way, he can deploy the army, the police, the paramilitary. But he can only do more of the same.”
The government of Jammu and Kashmir broke down last year, after Mr. Modi’s ruling party ended its alliance with a powerful regional party. That has left the state under the control of the central government in New Delhi.
“Kashmir is a pressure cooker,” Mr. Bedi said, a situation that “doesn’t leave the people with any way to channel their anger or ambitions.” He added that most militants in Kashmir are now “homegrown,” not slipping across the border from Pakistan.
A video appeared online featuring a man who claims to be the assailant in Thursday’s attack and who gives his name as Aadil Ahmad Dar and his age as 18 years old.
“Don’t think that because you have killed some of our commanders that we are finished. We will become your nightmare,” Mr. Dar said in the video.
Mr. Dar said that he had joined the Jaish-e-Muhammad a year ago and that he was from a region of the southern Kashmir valley that has witnessed sporadic violence since Burhan Muzaffar Wani, the charismatic leader of a Kashmiri militant outfit, was killed by the security forces in 2016.
Kashmir, a scenic valley in the Himalayan mountains whose fate was left undecided when the British partitioned India in 1947, has been plagued by violence for decades. Much of the area is controlled by India while Pakistan administers a slightly smaller slice. Bands of militants have been fighting for independence in the disputed region.
A spokesman for Jaish-e-Muhammad , Muhammad Hassan, told local media in a statement that “dozens” of Indian forces’ vehicles were destroyed in the attack and that the people of Kashmir would not give up “despite seeing thousands of dead bodies.”
Speaking of the attack Thursday, Amjid Bhat, a 27 year-old resident of Gundipoora, said, “It was terrifying to see human flesh on the roadside.”
After the blast Mr. Bhat said he and others ran for their lives thinking Indian soldiers might panic and open fire on anyone nearby.
Last year, 250 militants were killed in Kashmir, according to officials.
By Thursday night, Pakistan’s government had not issued a statement on the attack.
India’s Ministry of External Affairs on Thursday called on the United Nations to place Masood Azhar, the leader of Jaish-e-Muhammad, on a terrorist sanctions list. The United States pushed for such a listing by the United Nations Security Council last year, but China vetoed the action.