Explosive Device May Have Caused Fire On India-Pakistan Train

Sunday, February 18th 2007, 10:20 pm
By: News On 6

NEW DELHI (AP) _ A train traveling to Pakistan caught fire early Monday in northern India, killing at least 64 people, and officials said two suitcases filled with flammable material that appeared to be explosive devices were found at the scene.

V.N. Mathur, general manager of the Northern Railway, said one of the suitcases was found inside a burned train car and the other was on the railroad track.

Even before investigators confirmed the fire was the result of an attack, India's top railway official blamed Muslim militants bent on harming relations between longtime rivals India and Pakistan.

``It was an attempt to derail the improving ties between the two countries,'' Railway Minister Lalu Prasad told Press Trust of India news agency. ``Whoever is behind it will be caught and punished.''

Soon after the fire broke out, residents living near the tracks rushed to scene with buckets of water. The blaze was eventually extinguished after fire trucks arrived.

``We have 64 bodies,'' India's junior railway minister, R. Velu, told reporters at the scene.

The fire engulfed two cars of the Samjhauta Express, one of two train links between India and Pakistan. Because of security concerns, the train is kept sealed with locked doors and barred windows in the lower-class coaches when it travels from New Delhi to the border. Passengers may have been trapped inside the burning cars.

The fire broke out just before the train reached the station in the village of Deewana, about 50 miles north of New Delhi.

Mathur told reporters at least 30 passengers burned and injured in the blaze have been hospitalized in the nearby town of Panipat.

The train was traveling from New Delhi to Atari, the last railroad station before the border with Pakistan. At Atari, passengers change trains in a special station, switching to a Pakistani train that takes them to the Pakistani city of Lahore.

Within hours of the fire, authorities detached the burned cars and the rest of the train continued on to the India-Pakistan border.

The train links are one of the most visible results of the peace process under way between India and Pakistan, and one of the easiest ways to travel across the heavily militarized border.

Relations between the two countries have warmed in recent years, though they nearly went to war following a 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament that India blamed on Pakistan.

The two now hold talks regularly, and Pakistani Foreign Minister Khursheed Kasuri was due to arrive in New Delhi on Tuesday for more discussions.

Monday's blaze revived memories of the coordinated train bombings on Mumbai's commuter rail lines last July that killed more than 200 people.

In 2002, Hindu-Muslim riots that broke out after a train fire in which 60 Hindus returning from a religious pilgrimage were killed. Muslims were blamed for the fire in the western state of Gujarat, and more than 1,000 people, most of them Muslim, were killed by Hindu mobs.

About 84 percent of India's more than 1 billion people are Hindu, and Muslims account for about 14 percent.