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India decries 'an act of sabotage'

A deadly train fire was set off by attackers bent on halting peace efforts with Pakistan, officials speculate.

February 20, 2007|Henry Chu | Times Staff Writer

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.

That ideal of cooperation seems to have been a target in the firebomb attack that killed scores of passengers trapped in two of the train's burning carriages as it sped toward the Pakistani border.

The blaze was sparked by a pair of crude incendiary devices, prompting speculation that the disaster was the work of attackers bent on crippling India and Pakistan's halting steps toward peace, including a high-level meeting set for today between the nuclear-armed archrivals.

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

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

"We will not allow elements which want to sabotage the ongoing peace process to succeed in their nefarious designs," Pakistani state media quoted Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf as saying.

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 this month, 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.

This morning, police released sketches of two men who apparently jumped off the Samjhauta Express shortly before the firebombs went off close to midnight Sunday.

Indian media reported Monday that two suitcases with undetonated firebombs had been found; television footage showed at least one of the cases being blown up in a controlled explosion in a field near the village of Dewana, about 50 miles north of New Delhi.

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

By midmorning Monday, the charred remains of at least 67 people, some of them children, had been pulled from the two burned-out coaches, which sat near Dewana, surrounded by dark green wheat fields.

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Searching for his sister

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 the Indian state 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 culled to help family members identify the dead, some of whom were burned beyond recognition.

The blaze came just seven months after a series of synchronized bomb blasts on commuter trains in the bustling financial capital of Mumbai, which killed about 200 people.

Investigators were quick to accuse Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Kashmiri militant group, of orchestrating that earlier attack, possibly in league with Pakistan's intelligence service. In protest, the Indian government canceled meetings with Pakistani officials, which were later revived.

This time, authorities say they are not ruling out any of the terrorist groups that operate in India, from Muslim radicals to Hindu extremists, who are potentially unhappy over the attempts at rapprochement between Islamabad and New Delhi.

The attack added a new item to today's talks in New Delhi, and could further complicate a controversial agreement by the two sides to share anti-terrorist intelligence, which is due for its first trial at a meeting in Islamabad early next month.

If Indian authorities conclude that disgruntled Pakistanis had a direct or indirect hand in the latest attack, pressure from opponents of the agreement could force the government here to revisit the issue.

Perhaps to forestall such an outcome, Tasnim Aslam, a spokeswoman for the Pakistani 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."

Survivors and relatives of the dead faulted what they described as lax security that allowed suitcases packed with fuel onto several coaches. In the crowded lower-class coaches of the Samjhauta Express, passengers were trapped by security bars over the train's windows.

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