Kashmir's Srinagar-Muzaffarnagar bus

by AFP/Danny Kemp, Apr 4, 2005 | Destinations: India / New Delhi

ISLAMABAD, April 3, 2005 - Watertight security will surround the launch of the first buses for nearly six decades between the Indian and Pakistani zones of divided Kashmir this week, following threats of violence by Islamic militants.

The landmark service, starting on April 7, 2005, is seen as a major boost to peace moves between the nuclear-armed South Asian neighbours, whose competing claims to the breathtaking Himalayan region sparked two of their three wars.

Kashmiris were also looking forward to being reunited with family members when the buses start running between Srinagar, the summer capital of the Indian zone, and its Pakistani counterpart Muzaffarabad.

But guerilla groups responsible for a bloody 15-year insurgency against Indian rule in Kashmir have threatened to turn the so-called friendship buses into coffins.

India pledged military-style protection for the coaches as they weave their way across the heavily militarized frontier and through 183 kilometers (113 miles) of mountain passes.

"What security we provide to our military convoys would be provided to the bus too," top Indian army official Lieutenant Colonel Hari Prasad told AFP.

Indian Home Minister Shivraj Patil Sunday said the militant threat will not affect India's resolve for peace with Pakistan. "India's belief in the path to peace cannot be shaken by threats issued to the Srinagar-Muzaffarnagar bus service by some militant groups," Patil said, according to the Press Trust of India.

"The effort is on from our side and perhaps also from their side (Pakistan) that our friendship is strengthened. But those who do not believe in the path to peace are issuing threats. That does not mean we will be afraid or cowed down... the journey will take place on April 7 peacefully," he added.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will flag off the bus from Srinagar's Sheri-Kashmir Cricket Stadium, officials said. The prime minister of Pakistan's sector, Sikandar Hayat, will simultaneously inaugurate the service in Muzaffarabad.

Buses between the two cities were suspended in 1947 amid the chaos that followed the partition of India and Pakistan at the end of British rule.

Kashmir's Hindu ruler at the time acceded to India after Pakistani rebels raided the region, sparking the first war between the young nations and poisoning relations ever since.

Pakistan and India came close to another war over Kashmir in 2002, massing millions of troops along the volatile Line of Control, the de facto border in the region.

Yet in February they agreed to restart the service, one of the most symbolic gestures so far in an often torturously slow 14-month old peace process.

Coupled with Pakistan's President Musharraf forthcoming visit to India to watch a cricket match between the two traditional sporting rivals, plus the restarting of other road, rail and air links, ties are their warmest for years.

Workers have since toiled day and night to clear landmines, repair bridges and fix the tarmac so the long-abandoned route is ready on time.

But arrangements between New Delhi and Islamabad are rarely simple and the preparations have been dogged by controversy and rows. Kashmiris on both sides of the frontier were angered when officials said the bus service would only run once every two weeks, instead of a few times weekly as they had hoped.

People in Muzaffarabad also alleged that most of those on the final list of 30 travellers for the first coach had family links to officials. Passengers must apply for special permits which are vetted by each other's governments.

However the most serious threat to the success of the bus service remains the possibility of militant attacks, particularly as New Delhi accuses Islamabad of backing the insurgency in the Indian zone. Pakistan denies the charge.

Four guerrilla groups have warned that those on the initial list could be targeted as "traitors" by anti-Indian rebels. A retired Indian bureaucrat planning to travel on the bus said he had received death threats from an Islamic group.

The rebels say the bus is a way of consolidating Indian rule in Kashmir.

"We have made preparations for the first bus to roll in time on April 7 despite threats by some shadowy groups. Our special coaches are ready for the day," said Indian Kashmir's transport minister Raman Bhalla. Pakistan said it was not anticipating any security problems. "Azad Jammu and Kashmir (Pakistan's name for its zone) is a very peaceful area. There is no security threat here," foreign ministry spokesman Jalil Abbas Jilani told AFP.

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