- The Washington Times - Monday, February 19, 2007

NEW DELHI — Authorities yesterday decried synchronized bomb blasts that demolished two cars on a Pakistan-bound train and killed at least 66 persons as an attempt to obstruct peace efforts between the two countries.

Thirteen persons were injured in the Sunday night blasts, which authorities swiftly blamed on Muslim extremists. The bombings came ahead of scheduled peace talks in New Delhi today with Pakistani Foreign Minister Khurshid Kasuri.

It was the deadliest attack since a series of bomb blasts on commuter trains and railway stations in Bombay in July, which killed more than 180 and temporarily halted peace efforts by the nuclear neighbors.

“It’s sabotage — it’s an act of terrorism” like the one in Bombay, Railways Minister Lalu Prasad Yadav told reporters, according to Reuters news agency.

In Washington, a White House spokesman extended U.S. sympathies to the families of the victims and condemned “those who seek to undermine the progress in relations between the two countries.”

The Samjhauta Express, which runs between New Delhi and Lahore, Pakistan, and is known as the “Friendship Express,” was less than 180 miles from the border when the bombs exploded shortly before midnight.

Many passengers were burned to death or suffocated, trapped behind the metal bars commonly found on windows in lower-class Indian train cars.

“We couldn’t save anyone,” Rajinder Prasad, a laborer who lives near the tracks, told Reuters. “They were screaming inside, but no one could get out.”

Minutes later, he said, the screams were drowned by the roar of the flames.

Indian television showed footage of the smoldering, burned-out carriages and of relatives of passengers at the Old Delhi and Lahore railway stations, desperate for news of loved ones.

“The objective of these blasts was to disrupt the dialogue between India and Pakistan,” Commodore Uday Bhaskar, deputy director of the Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses in New Delhi, told The Washington Times.

Unlike in the Bombay blasts, most of the victims of the latest explosions were Pakistani — more than three-quarters, say officials. The two cars had been set aside for unreserved seating, meaning that the perpetrators would not have known who they would kill, said a railway official.

The train is a symbol improved relations between India and Pakistan, which have fought three wars since their independence in 1947. At the core of their dispute is the divided Himalayan region of Kashmir, where Muslim militants have been fighting Indian rule since 1989.

Inevitably, the story of the Friendship Express has looked rocky at times. In 2002, it was suspended after attacks the previous year on the Indian parliament, which India blamed on Pakistan-based militants. In 2004, the two countries began a new peace process and the train service resumed.

The search for peace was temporarily halted by last year’s Bombay bombings. But it picked up again after Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf met in Havana in September and vowed to continue the process.

They also agreed to establish a joint counterterrorism task force — an initiative likely to gain new impetus with the bombings.

Since the meeting in Havana, there has been an unprecedented rush of diplomacy, including a visit to Pakistan in January by Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee.

The latest blasts appear to have done less damage to the peace process than the Bombay bombings.

Mr. Kasuri said yesterday he would return Mr. Mukherjee’s visit as scheduled.

“In fact … we should hasten the peace process,” he told reporters in Islamabad.

The foreign ministers are expected to sign several agreements, including one to reduce the risk of an accidental nuclear war and others to end smaller territorial disputes.

“There is a much greater level of agreement between the two countries than there was,” said Commodore Bhaskar. “The peace process is pretty bomb-proof now.”


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