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SRINAGAR, June 24: Heavily-armed militants killed eight soldiers in India-held Kashmir on Monday in the deadliest such attack in five years, marring a landmark visit by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to the embattled Himalayan territory.

The military convoy was ambushed on the outskirts of Srinagar as it headed towards a nearby base camp, officials said.

“Eight troops died in the attack and 13 others have been wounded,” a senior police official told AFP on condition of anonymity. The condition of one of the injured was critical, he said.

The attack marked the deadliest single day for Indian security forces in India-held Kashmir since July 2008 when a landmine killed nine soldiers on a bus near Srinagar.

Monday’s attack came amid a high state of alert which has been imposed ahead of Mr Singh’s arrival on Tuesday for a two-day visit to the territory, his first since June 2010.

Police sources said motorbike-borne militants opened fire at the army vehicles before lobbing a grenade at one of them. As the militants fled they threw another hand-grenade at a group of paramilitaries, severely injuring one officer.

They then abandoned their bike and escaped before the army cordoned off the area, the sources said.

Hizbul Mujahideen, a local militant group, claimed responsibility for the attack.Security officials had earlier said that police and paramilitary forces were being deployed in strength across the region, with additional checkpoints set up along major highways.

“A high alert is there. We do face a threat from the militants,” Kashmir police chief Abdul Gani Mir said.

Kashmir is divided between India and Pakistan by a UN-monitored de facto border known as the Line of Control but it is claimed in full by both countries.

More than a dozen militant groups have been fighting Indian forces since 1989 for the region’s independence or its merger with Pakistan.

Tens of thousands of people, mostly civilians, have died in the fighting but armed violence has been in steady decline since the early 2000s.

Security concerns were raised on Saturday when armed men struck in a busy commercial area in the heart of Srinagar, killing two policemen in a shoot-and-run incident.

The three main separatist groups opposed to Indian rule have called for a mass strike for Tuesday to protest the visit of the prime minister.

“This is a protest against the forcible military occupation of Kashmir and we want to give the Indian prime minister this message that by hanging Afzal Guru, New Delhi has sent the entire Kashmiri people to the cross,” Syed Ali Geelani, a top separatist leader, said in a statement.

Mohammad Afzal Guru, a Kashmiri, was secretly executed and buried inside a high security prison in New Delhi in February for his role in a deadly attack on India’s parliament in 2001.

Four people were killed during a security crackdown against widespread protests over the hanging of Guru, who many people in Kashmir believe was framed.

Officials say a few dozen youths have been detained in police stations to “prevent protests” during Mr Singh’s visit, but separatist leaders put the figure in the hundreds.

Mr Singh, who will be accompanied to Kashmir by ruling Congress party chief Sonia Gandhi, is scheduled to inaugurate a section of an ambitious railway project that is expected to link the land-locked Kashmir valley to the massive Indian rail network by 2018.—AFP