Attack `only adds to urgency'

Pakistani envoy visits India as rival nations vow to pursue peace

February 21, 2007|By Henry Chu | Henry Chu,Los Angeles Times

NEW DELHI -- Pakistan's top envoy arrived in India's capital yesterday to nudge along a fitful peace process in the aftermath of a deadly firebombing aboard a train connecting the rival nations.

The attack on the Samjhauta Express, in which at least 68 people burned to death, lent a greater sense of urgency to a previously scheduled visit by Pakistani Foreign Minister Mian Khursheed Mehmood Kasuri. Most of the passengers who died in Sunday night's blazes, which devoured the interior of two crowded coaches, were Pakistanis returning home on the New Delhi-to-Lahore rail line.

"The incident only adds to urgency for us to cooperate," Kasuri told reporters after touring a New Delhi hospital where several victims were taken for treatment. "I have come here to improve our relations and to carry the peace process forward."

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said that remaining "steadfast in our commitment to normalize relations between our two countries" would be the best tribute officials could pay to the slain passengers.

Officials have called the attack a terrorist act aimed at upsetting the delicate relationship between India and Pakistan, which has slowly improved through a peace process launched after the two nuclear-armed neighbors nearly went to war in 2002.

The Samjhauta Express, one of the most prominent symbols of the growing detente, has been threatened in the past by Hindu extremists. For their part, Kashmiri militants allegedly backed by hard-liners in Pakistan's military intelligence establishment have been accused of previous assaults on India's vulnerable railway system, such as the coordinated bombings that struck commuter trains in Mumbai in July.

But if the goal was to poison relations between New Delhi and Islamabad, the result has so far been to hasten their improvement, at least temporarily.

Within hours of the attack, Singh passed along his condolences to his Pakistani counterpart, Shaukat Aziz. Officials of both governments vowed to press ahead with peace talks and promised to expedite visas and travel on either side of the border for the families of survivors and the dead.

Singh pledged to hunt down those responsible for the firebombing. Unlike the case in other attacks, after which Indian authorities have almost reflexively blamed Pakistani agents or their proxies, police refrained from speculating as to who was responsible.

Yesterday, Indian police released sketches of two prime suspects who they said got off the train minutes before two suitcases filled with low-grade explosives and bottles of flammable chemicals went up in a ball of flame about 50 miles north of New Delhi.

Senior policeman Sharad Kumar told a news conference that the two men had argued with the conductor after boarding the train, saying that they wanted to travel to the western Indian city of Ahmedabad, not to Lahore. Against regulations, the men were allowed to jump off the train, which they did about 15 minutes before the two carriages burst into flame.

In another security breach, 13 passengers who made it to the border town of Attari were found to be traveling without passports, Kumar said.

Survivors and relatives of the victims condemned the lack of security surrounding so politically sensitive a rail link as the Samjhauta Express. One injured man said from his hospital bed Monday that police had performed no checks on the train.

Henry Chu writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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