Bus Service Between Divided Kashmir Begins
SRINAGAR, India (AP) _ Buses departed Thursday from both the Indian and Pakistani sides of divided Kashmir with a few dozen passengers aboard, heading across one of the world’s most heavily militarized frontiers in a symbolic step toward peace in a region riven by violence.
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh described the buses as ``a caravan of peace″ before seeing off the passengers, some of whom hugged Singh before boarding.
The premier then waved a blue flag to mark the start of the bus service to Pakistan-controlled Kashmir. The bus service comes as one of the clearest positive steps in the two nations’ often-stumbling peace process.
``The caravan of peace is now on its way. No one can stop it,″ Singh said, praising Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf for helping Kashmiris realize a dream of visiting members of their divided families.
``The new climate will help India and Pakistan to settle their disputes peacefully,″ he said.
At about the same time Thursday, the first bus set off from the capital of the Pakistani portion of Kashmir, Muzaffarabad, on the inaugural trip in the opposite direction.
Hundreds of people crowded rooftops and pressed close together along the road where the bus departed, but the official send-off was more subdued. Neither Musharraf nor Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz attended.
A total of about 50 passengers rode the buses, half from Pakistani-controlled Kashmir and half from the Indian portion. Most are from families that have been divided since Kashmir was split between the rival nations almost 60 years ago.
Passengers will travel on the buses to the bridge that spans the Line of Control _ the de facto border that divides Kashmir _ which they will cross on foot to board buses on the other side and drive to Muzaffarabad or Srinagar, the capitals of two Kashmirs.
The winding trans-Kashmir road, once the region’s main highway, has been closed for nearly six decades, since India and Pakistan each took control of part of Kashmir in 1948.
The service went ahead in spite of an apparent separatist attack Wednesday on a building where passengers in Indian Kashmir were awaiting their departure while under police protection. Four militant groups warned that passengers ``should not board this coffin to Muzaffarabad.″
Six people were injured in the attack, but the passengers escaped unharmed. Two militants had made it through the gate of the heavily guarded tourism complex, opening fire in the courtyard. A gunbattle quickly broke out with guards and the main building in the complex caught fire, shooting flames more than 100 feet into the air and filling the air with black smoke.
Most of the region’s militant groups oppose any steps forward in the peace process and see the bus service as a gimmick that gets them no closer to their separatist goals.
Passengers said they were excited and would not be intimidated.
``We are believers in Almighty Allah, and we hope none will harm us. We are ambassadors of peace,″ said Syed Shahid Bahar, 36, a lawyer whose father migrated from the Indian side of Kashmir in 1949. Bahar’s cousins and uncles live in Indian Kashmir and he plans to stay there for 15 days.
Another passenger from Muzaffarabad, Mohammed Amjad Khan, said he was happy that he was going to Srinagar despite the threat of attack.
``Once in a life a man has to die, and that time is fixed so I don’t worry about that,″ he said.
More than a dozen rebel groups, most of them Pakistan-based, have been fighting for Kashmir’s independence from India or its merger with Pakistan since 1989. At least 66,000 people, mostly civilians, have been killed in the conflict.
Kashmir, the only majority Muslim state in largely Hindu India, is claimed in its entirety by both India and Pakistan, and has been at the root of two of their three wars.
Associated Press reporter Matthew Pennington contributed to this report from Muzaffarabad, Pakistan.