Bloody attempt to derail peace train: • 68 trapped to death as fire fuelled by blasts engulfs crowded compartments • Terror attack not to affect dialogue, vow Pakistani, Indian leaders
NEW DELHI, Feb 19: Two crude incendiary bombs exploded inside the security-sealed train from Delhi to the border post of Attari early on Monday, sparking a fire in which at least 68 passengers, including an unknown number of Pakistanis, were trapped to death.
At least 13 other people were also injured. Several of them were being treated in a New Delhi hospital for burns and other injuries.
The Indian government called the incident an act of terrorism. Describing the blasts near Panipat, 80 kms north of Delhi, as a heinous crime, President Gen. Pervez Musharraf said he would not allow elements opposed to the India-Pakistan peace process to sabotage the dialogue.
“Such wanton acts of terrorism will only serve to further strengthen the resolve to attain the mutually desired objective of sustainable peace between the two countries,” he said.
“We will not allow elements who want to sabotage the ongoing peace process to succeed in their nefarious designs.” Gen. Musharraf underscored the need for the leadership of Pakistan and India to move forward undeterred in the quest for dispute resolution and lasting peace in the region.
Expressing profound grief and shock over the tragic loss of lives in the bomb blasts, he hoped the Indian government would take all measures to bring the culprits of this “heinous crime” to justice.
Pakistani officials who rushed to the site from Delhi could identify six Pakistanis among the dead till Monday evening and named one of them as Shafiq Ahmed, son of Maqbool Khan. Most of the bodies were charred beyond recognition. They are to be sent to Delhi for DNA tests.
An official announcement said Foreign Minister Khurshid Mehmood Kasuri, expected here on a four-day official visit would arrive as scheduled on Tuesday.
Forensic experts who collected samples from the train were of the view that low-intensity sulphur- or nitrate-based explosives were used to trigger the blasts with kerosene-filled bottles acting as catalyst to spread the fire. Television pictures showed a big plastic suitcase with wires and a plastic bottle attached. Another suitcase was stuffed with plastic bottles, which officials said contained a flammable liquid.
Police said the explosions were small, but were apparently intended to cause a deadly fire on four or five of the train’s coaches.
“It’s sabotage. It’s an act of terrorism like the one in Mumbai,” Indian Railways Minister Lalu Prasad Yadav said, referring to bomb blasts in Mumbai in July that killed 186 people.
Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz spoke to his Indian counterpart Dr. Manmohan Singh about the incident. Dr Singh, according to a statement, “declared India’s abhorrence for this heinous terrorist act and reaffirmed our commitment to doing everything possible to ensure that its perpetrators are punished.”
As the focus at this time “is on the humanitarian aspect; the prime minister conveyed his condolences for the Pakistani victims of this tragedy, and indicated the steps taken to provide all possible assistance for the injured and bereaved.”
According to police sources, the 14-coach train was chugging towards Panipat when the explosions occurred just past midnight and set off a huge fire in two of the crowded compartments. Most of the victims were caught asleep in the inferno. The train with other passengers resumed its journey after five coaches, including the two charred ones were detached. Ten Pakistanis were admitted with severe burns at Delhi’s Safdarjung Hospital.
Pakistani officials said the passengers who were able to escape appeared to have broken through the sole emergency exit window in each of the affected coaches. The exit doors are routinely locked up on this train which runs point to point between the Old Delhi station and the Indian border post of Attari, on the Indo-Pakistan border, not stopping at any other station for security reasons.
The train links up with the cross-border Samjhota Express at Attari and is supervised by India’s Intelligence Bureau and the federal Railway Police. However, according to reports, there were just six security personnel for the entire train and three of them are believed to have perished in the fire.
Condoling the deaths, Indian Home Minister Shivraj Patil said the incident was aimed at disturbing peace and spoiling India’s relationship with other countries.
“Whoever is behind the incident is against peace and wants to spoil our growing relationship with other countries,” Mr. Patil said. “Our sympathies are with the family members of those who lost their lives in the incident. We will find ways to help them out,” he added.
President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam expressed grief over the loss of lives in the explosions onboard the Attari train.
Congress President Sonia Gandhi appealed to the people of India and Pakistan to stand up firmly against what she said were enemies of humanity. “Mrs. Gandhi has condemned the barbaric act of violence in the Samjhota Express and has appealed to the people of India and Pakistan to stand up firmly against such enemies of humanity,” a party spokesperson said.Railway Minister Yadav said that two suitcases containing IEDs were recovered from the site of the incident. A statutory probe has also been ordered. An announcement said the next of kin of all victims would be paid a million rupees each.
Condemning the incident, he said it was an attempt to derail the improving relations between India and Pakistan. The bi-weekly train, discontinued only twice since it began operating from July 22, 1976, is believed to have been on the hit-list of militants opposed to India-Pakistan talks.
However, a real time poll survey by the NDTV news channel asked viewers if they thought that the blasts were carried out by ‘terrorists’ or ‘one of us’ or whether it was an ‘accident’. The verdict was completely unexpected. As many as 54 per cent blamed ‘one of us’ for the incident while 44 accused ‘terrorists’ for the crime with two percent saying it appeared to be an accident.
Former prime minister Mir Zafarullah Jamali, in Delhi on a private visit, said that incidents like the train attack should not be allowed to stall the peace process between India and Pakistan. But, he added: “We should also not ignore the root cause of all this violence. We have to address the Kashmir issue and resolve it to everyone’s satisfaction. That would be the most effective remedy to the violence.”
Home Minister Patil said that a ‘new type’ of explosive material was used in the blasts. The explosive material was incendiary, as a result of which two bogies of the train were charred from inside, he told reporters. “These explosives were packed in suitcases,” he said.
Asked about the group responsible for the terror strike, Mr. Patil said, “We have got enough inputs, but we are not going to divulge them at this moment as this would hamper our investigation.”