India scrambles security for Republic Day

New Delhi faces a virtual security lockdown for a grand annual parade on Tuesday as India celebrates Republic Day amid warnings that Islamic militants could be plotting an attack.

South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak will be the guest of honour at the celebrations in the Indian capital, where officials are vowing a show of strength in the face of threats.

"We are making elaborate arrangements to provide comprehensive ground-to-air security," city police department spokesman Rajan Bhagat said.

"We promise a safe Republic Day," he said, adding his 71,000-member police force will be on the streets in the city alongside the heavily-armed paramilitary troopers who have already taken up positions at intersections, malls and on the underground rail network.

The preparations took on new urgency after US Defence Secretary Robert Gates warned last week that Islamist South Asian militant groups could try to trigger a war between Pakistan and India through a "provocative act".

India on Friday also stepped up airport security and alerted its embassies in neighbouring countries of possible passenger plane hijacking attempts by Islamic militants, following Western intelligence tip-offs.

The Indian military said it aimed to thwart possible airborne attacks at the parade where President Lee will be accompanied by his Indian counterpart Pratibha Patil, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and scores of Western diplomats.

"Anti-aircraft guns, snipers and mobile hit squads will be deployed while a squadron of fighter jets and helicopters will be on standby," a military officer involved in the preparations told AFP.

City traffic police chief Satyendra Garg said sweeping restrictions would be imposed on motorists and on public transport including New Delhi's metro service, which daily carries more than 800,000 people.

Insurgency-wracked Indian Kashmir is also a focus of high security as troops comb the Himalayan state for Islamic militants seeking to disrupt the annual celebrations, which are staged is every part of India.

The United News of India news agency said authorities feared attacks by suicide bombers in the run-up to Republic Day in Kashmir, where tens of thousands of people have died in anti-Indian unrest since 1989.

India's restive northeast too braced for trouble as regional militant groups -- with demands ranging from autonomy to outright secession -- threatened to strike on Tuesday.

"We are on full alert and shall see to it that we are able to foil any attack attempts by militants," said Shankar Baruah, police chief of Assam, the largest of the seven insurgency-wracked states.

Republic Day marks the date in 1950 when India's new republican constitution came into effect. India gained independence from Britain in 1947, but went through a transitional phase when it was still classed as a dominion.

India also uses the occasion to showcase its latest military hardware acquired as part of a massive modernisation drive costing tens of billions of dollars.

 

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