A powerful blast shook Varanasi's Shitla Ghat when ‘Ganga aarti' was under way on Tuesday evening, killing a two-year-old girl and injuring over 21 people. Among the injured are some foreigners.

The blast, occurring a day after the 18th anniversary of the demolition of the Babri Masjid, was so powerful that the stairs leading to the Shitla Ghat were ripped apart. With the Indian Mujahideen reportedly claiming responsibility for the explosion, the incident marked the return of terrorism in Uttar Pradesh, which had not witnessed a militant strike since the attack on the Rampur CRPF group centre in the intervening night of December 31, 2007 and January 1, 2008.

This is the second time in around six years that Varanasi has been targeted by terror outfits. The last attack was in 2005, when militants struck at the Sankat Mochan temple and the railway station.

A state of high alert has been sounded in the State, with very heavy security in Ayodhya, Mathura and other sensitive places, including Lucknow and Kanpur.

Initial reports said it was a low intensity blast. A stampede that followed is said to have caused most of the injuries.

ADG (Law and Order) Brij Lal told reporters in Lucknow that anti-terrorist and bomb disposal squads had reached the Shitla Ghat. The exact nature of the explosion would be confirmed only after experts examined the site. The ADG said the blast occured around 7 p.m. when ‘Ganga aarti' was being performed at the Shitla Ghat and the adjacent Dasashwamedh Ghat.

He said the explosive device was purportedly placed under the stairs leading to the ghat on the banks of the river. Mr. Lal, however, denied that security was lax, considering that hundreds of tourists, both domestic and foreign, gathered daily on the ghats to witness and participate in the religious ritual. He denied that the State government had ignored the advisory sent by the Centre about the possibility of a terror strike in Varanasi.

Chief Minister Mayawati despatched senior Minister Swamy Prasad Maurya, Director-General of Police Karamveer Singh, Chief Secretary Atul Kumar Gupta and Principal Secretary (Home) Kunwar Fateh Bahadur to Varanasi.

Governor B.L. Joshi condemned the incident and described the explosion as a dastardly act aimed at disturbing the peace and harmony in the State. He wished the injured, who have been admitted to hospitals, speedy recovery.