Old foes join in anger over India train bombing

Posted in Broader Middle East , India , Other , Asia | 21-Feb-07 | Author: Somini Sengupta| Source: International Herald Tribune

People who live near the tracks rushed to the train with buckets of water soon after the fire broke out, and the blaze was eventually extinguished after fire trucks arrived. A police officer looks into a burnt train compartment.

DIWANA, India: A day after two homemade bombs killed at least 66 people on a train traveling to Pakistan from India, the governments of both countries condemned the attack and pledged that it would not deter their aim of reducing longstanding hostilities on the subcontinent.

The office of Manmohan Singh, the Indian prime minister, on Monday morning called the bombing "an act of terror" and promised to apprehend those responsible. Pakistan also denounced the attack, which occurred on the eve of a visit by Khurshid Mehmood Kasuri, the Pakistani foreign minister, to the Indian capital, New Delhi, and two weeks before officials from both countries were to meet for the first time to share information on terrorism-related activities.

The train had ferried more than 600 passengers from Delhi to the India-Pakistan border. The bombs exploded just after midnight Sunday, trapping slumbering passengers aboard the Attari Express in flames. By early Monday, when the bodies were pulled from train, they were so severely burned it was difficult to tell who they were, let alone whether they were Indian or Pakistani.

All told, 66 bodies were taken out of two burned-out compartments; 13 survivors somehow escaped, including an infant and Kamruddin, 60, a small thin man from Multan, Pakistan, who thanked God as an ambulance carried him to an Indian government hospital in New Delhi on Monday. Kamruddin recalled making his way to the door of his coach and having someone pull him out.

Twelve hours later, the two coaches were still smoldering.

Peace talks between India and Pakistan have crawled along for three years, yielding little more than an accord on transportation links like the Attari Express. The two last stepped close to the brink of war in early 2002. They have fought each other in three wars since independence from British rule in 1947.

"This is an act of sabotage," Laloo Prasad Yadav, the Indian railroad minister, told reporters in the eastern city of Patna, according to wire service reports. "This is an attempt to derail the improving relationship between India and Pakistan."

In a statement reported by Reuters, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, the Pakistani president, said, "We will not allow elements which want to sabotage the ongoing peace process to succeed in their nefarious designs."

The overnight train, en route from Delhi to the border post at Attari, began service 30 years ago, and after a two-year suspension at a time of acute enmity between India and Pakistan, resumed service in January 2004. From Attari, passengers board a second train, which takes them to Lahore, Pakistan.

The explosions occurred when the train had advanced about a mile from Diwana, a tiny station here surrounded by fields of wheat.

Three other bombs were found in the train's other coaches, according to police and railroad officials; a police officer at the scene said he saw a suitcase packed with eight to nine bottles filled with an unknown liquid, along with a plastic detonator.

V. K. Duggal, the home secretary, told reporters that sulfur and kerosene had probably been used.

Yadav, the railroad minister, said Monday evening that one person had been detained in connection with the blasts, according to Reuters, but offered no further details.

Navtej Sarna, a spokesman for the Indian Ministry of External Affairs, told reporters that visas would be issued to Pakistani relatives of those who were feared dead. On Monday afternoon, police officers worked in the sun to identify victims at the main government hospital in Panipat, the nearest city to the site of the explosions, recording the remnants they had found: singed passports, a wallet, a key.

The attack occurred almost exactly five years after a fire on a train killed 59 Hindu pilgrims in Gujarat State, in western India, setting off some of the worst communal carnage in India's history, in which at least 1,100 people were killed, mostly Muslims. Last July, a series of synchronized bombs went off on commuter trains in Mumbai, India's largest city, killing about 180 people.

In the attack on Sunday, bombs went off inside two coaches, toward the back of the train, shortly after it left Diwana at 11:53 p.m., two officials at the station said. By the time the first fire trucks arrived, the two coaches were ablaze, and the air smelled of burning plastic and flesh, according to B. D. Ahuja, the fire station officer at Panipat.

Satya Narain Sharma, a firefighter who was among the first to reach the scene at 12:10 a.m. said that when fire crews tried to pry open the first door, it did not budge. Later, they found behind it a pile of bodies, all apparently passengers trying to escape. They found a second door open and began pulling out the dead. Muhammad Wasim Khan said his uncle, Shaffiq Ahmed Khan, from Karachi, was among the dead. Shaffiq Ahmed Khan and his sons, Aarish, 15, and Sammy, 9, had come to visit relatives in Delhi. They stayed for a month and began to make their way home on Sunday night, their bags stuffed with gifts: clothes, fancy soap and packets of Rajanigandha-brand paan masala, a North Indian mouth-freshener. They stuffed their money into their shoes, relatives said, so it would not be taken by the police along the way.

On Sunday night, Muhammad Wasim Khan settled them into the fourth coach from the back, and waved goodbye from the platform. The next afternoon, he found his uncle's body at the hospital in Panipat. He recognized him by the brown coat he wore, and the money stuffed inside his shoes. His face was burned beyond recognition. The two boys had been admitted to Safdarjung Hospital in New Delhi.

At the Old Delhi railroad station, distraught friends and relatives began gathering before dawn to learn who had been killed and who had escaped alive, but at the emergency assistance booth on Platform 15, officials had little information.

Mohammad Aslam, a bangle manufacturer, who accompanied five of his cousins to the train on Sunday night, said his repeated requests for information were brushed off by station staff members. "They keep saying 'How can we give you information when we know nothing ourselves?' " he said.

He said there had been no security searches before passengers boarded the train. Nodding toward the row of police officers searching people at the entrance to the station, opening suitcases and checking handbags, he said, "None of that was there yesterday."