Attack targets ties between India, Pakistan

Crude bombs ignite deadly fire aboard symbolic rail link

February 20, 2007|By Henry Chu | Henry Chu,LOS ANGELES TIMES

DEWANA, India -- With a name meaning understanding and agreement, the Samjhauta Express linking India and Pakistan was a symbol of hope that the two nations might finally trade decades of enmity for friendship.

Now, that ideal of cooperation appears to have been as much a target as the scores of passengers who burned to death yesterday in a fire that swept through two of the train's carriages as it headed toward the Pakistani border.

The blaze was apparently sparked by a pair of crude bombs, prompting speculation that it was the work of attackers bent on crippling the two nations' halting steps toward peace, including a high-level meeting set for today between the arch-rivals.

"This is an act of sabotage," said India's railway minister, Laloo Prasad. "This is an attempt to derail the improving relationship between India and Pakistan."

Shivraj Patil, India's home minister, told reporters that police had collected enough clues to point to a possible culprit, but that the information was being withheld so it would not "be misused." Five years ago, a deadly fire aboard a train in Gujarat state - a blaze widely, but wrongly, blamed on Muslim arsonists - ignited religious riots that left more than 1,000 people dead.

Indian news media reported that two suitcases with unexploded bombs had been found; television footage showed at least one of the cases being blown up in a field near Dewana.

The devices, packed with bottles of flammable liquid, were designed more to start fires than to explode, an official from India's Home Ministry told CNN-IBN television.

By midmorning, the charred remains of at least 66 people, some of them children, had been pulled from the two burned-out coaches, which sat near the village of Dewana, about 50 miles north of New Delhi, surrounded by green wheat fields.

Most of the victims were Pakistanis, officials said. Relatives from the Indian side of the border milled about in grief at the site of the fire and outside the small hospital in the nearby town of Panipat, where blocks of ice were being hauled in to cool a morgue filled to overflowing.

"Never did we dream something like this would happen," said Fakhruddin Behlim, a resident of Rajasthan, whose 72-year-old sister was aboard one of the burned carriages.

In vain, Behlim scanned the short list of injured for his sister's name. What awaited him next was a grim pile of scorched belongings - passports, clothes - that police had saved to help family members identify the dead.

Authorities say they are not ruling out responsibility by any of the groups that operate in India - from Muslim radicals to Hindu extremists - that are unhappy with attempts at rapprochement between Islamabad and New Delhi.

News services reported last night that one person had been detained in connection with the fire, but no details were available.

Diplomacy between New Delhi and Islamabad seemed to remain on track, with the expected arrival in the Indian capital today of Pakistani Foreign Minister Khurshid Kasuri for scheduled talks.

"We will not allow elements which want to sabotage the ongoing peace process succeed in their nefarious designs," Pakistan's state news media quoted the country's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, as saying.

But the attack added a new item to today's talks in New Delhi, and could further complicate an agreement to share anti-terrorism intelligence, which is due for its first trial at a meeting in Islamabad next month. If Indian authorities conclude that disgruntled Pakistanis had a hand in the attack, pressure from opponents could force the government to revisit the issue.

Tasnim Aslam, a spokeswoman for Pakistan's Foreign Ministry, emphasized India's responsibility to secure its trains, which form one of the world's biggest rail networks.

"Most of the victims who died in the incident were Pakistanis," Aslam said. "India should hold an inquiry and punish the perpetrators."

Henry Chu writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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