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India-Pakistan: Kashmir Bus Link Goes Ahead Despite Attack

Pakistani soldiers (file photo) Indian and Pakistani authorities today are pushing ahead with the maiden voyages of a direct bus link between the divided parts of Kashmir -- the first such journeys in more than half a century. The transport link has raised hopes for peace on the subcontinent, despite an attack by suspected Islamic militants yesterday at the Indian government complex in Srinagar where passengers were staying

Prague, 7 April 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Fatima Begum is a 75-year-old widow from Srinagar in Indian-administered Kashmir. Her daughter, Haifa Bano, lives across the Line of Control in the Pakistani-administered part.

The opening of a bus link between the divided parts of Kashmir today marks the first time in decades that a reunion is possible for Begum and thousands of other families in the disputed Himalayan region. Begum says her daughter plans to take a bus across the Line of Control in the next two weeks.
The journey could be dangerous. Yesterday, a day before the opening of the bus link, suspected Islamic militants attacked a heavily guarded building in Srinagar where passengers for the inaugural voyages had gathered.

"She is my child. She has been separated from me for the past 24 years," says Begum. "Now she will meet her mother, brothers, sisters -- everybody. We are very happy. I am very happy that they are coming here."

The journey could be dangerous. Yesterday, a day before the opening of the bus link, suspected Islamic militants attacked a heavily guarded building in Srinagar where passengers for the inaugural voyages had gathered.

The attackers threw hand grenades and set fire to the complex. Terrified passengers -- including women and children -- hurled themselves through ground-floor windows as flames engulfed the building and thick black smoke blanketed the city center.

India's Home Affairs Ministry says two "suicide attackers" were killed in a gun fight with security forces. At least seven civilians were injured.

Later, a member of an armed group phoned news organizations and claimed four militant organizations were responsible for the attack -- Al-Nasireen, the Save Kashmir Movement, Al-Arifeen, and Farzandan-e-Millat.

The militants are fighting Indian rule in Kashmir. They say the new bus route merely serves New Delhi's aims to hold on to the Indian-administered part of the region..

A week ago, the four groups had warned in a joint statement that the buses will become “coffins” for those who ride in them.

But today, as the buses began their maiden voyages along the highway linking Srinagar and Muzaffarabad, security officials said they have the situation under control.

Kasif Murtaza, chief of security in Muzaffarabad on the Pakistani side of Kashmir, says, "Security is foolproof from our point of view. Our officers have been making rounds of the entire route for the whole night and even in the morning. And the security is in place right from six o'clock in the morning. So we are very hopeful, inshallah, that everything will remain OK."

Since independence from British colonial rule in 1947, India and Pakistan have fought two of their three wars over Kashmir. The region also has been the scene of a bloody insurgency and entrenched diplomatic positions for decades that nearly led to a third war there in 2002.

An agreement earlier this year to open the cross-border bus service is the first tangible sign of progress in a slow peace process between Islamabad and New Delhi.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh spoke about the symbolic importance of the bus link today at a stadium in Srinagar. The prime minister was there to send off two Indian buses decorated with orange marigolds and bound for Muzaffarabad:

"For us, to open the links for the commuters is only the first step," said Singh. "One door has opened, which has its own importance, and for that I am very thankful for the people who came together with us to make this possible, especially Pakistan and their leader President Pervez Musharraf."

Sonia Gandhi, leader of the governing Indian Congress Party, called the bus voyages "a huge step" in the peace process that will be remembered for a very long time.

Meanwhile, in Muzaffarabad, passengers boarding a green and yellow Pakistani bus bound in the other direction said they were determined to complete the voyage despite the threats.

Not all Kashmiri militants are opposed to the historic new bus service.

Abdul Majeed, a member of a militant organization, called the bus "the first ray of light in a long tunnel of darkness" for Kashmiris. Majeed has called on other militants to refrain from attacks against the buses.