India-Pakistan Train Attack Petrol Bombs Against a Fragile Friendship

Over 60 dead, dozens injured -- such is the outcome of the bomb attack on the Friendship Express between India and Pakistan. The culprits have not yet been identified, but fragile relations between the the two countries have been put in danger.

By in Karachi

At least 66 people died on the Friendship Express as it headed toward Pakistan.

At least 66 people died on the Friendship Express as it headed toward Pakistan.

The images on Pakistani television are those of a catastrophe. Several burned out carriages of the Samjhauta Express sit on the track -- somewhere between the Indian capital New Delhi and the Pakistani border town Attari. The colorful paint on the train, a symbol of the rapprochement between the two enemy countries, has been peeled off by the heat of the flames; there are grimy traces of soot on the windows of the carriages.

Next to the train wreck lie bodies -- hurriedly covered before the first TV crews arrived. Helpers, mostly people from nearby villages, carry charred bodies from the carriages. The police stand around at a loss next the scenes of horror. So far, 66 have been confirmed dead, but that number could rise.

Some of the passengers took shaky images with their mobile phones -- they show meter-high flames engulfing the inside of the train.

It is still not clear what exactly happened. Indian authorities say the disaster was caused by two simple bombs exploding at around 9 p.m. on Sunday evening. The explosive device and bottles of petrol were hidden in suitcases. It is a lethal combination that has been much touted in Internet forums devoted to terrorism: The combustible liquid turns the inside of the carriage into a flaming inferno. It's not so much the explosion itself that is fatal, but the fire that burns the victims to death.

Lost in the thick smoke

It is a method that seems to have been especially effective in this case. As on most Indian trains, almost all of the compartment windows had bars on them and at least one door was fused shut by the heat. There was no where to go for the trapped passengers.

Reports from eyewitnesses speak of a tragedy. "I lost five children in the train," one mother said on television. She described a "violent explosion" that spread smoke everywhere within seconds.

Another passenger described how people on the train panicked. "Almost all the doors were blocked, there was more and more smoke. I couldn’t see anything and couldn't breathe," the man said, in tears. His face was still covered in black soot. He lost his children in the thick smoke -- they likely suffocated. Many other passengers ran about helpless and confused, lifting up sheets covering the bodies to see if they could find their loved ones.

According to the authorities, two of the carriages were completely burned out. And two bombs -- which failed to explode -- were reported to have been found in two other carriages. The type of attack was similar to the series of bombs on Indian commuter trains in Srinagar and Mumba, which killed more than 160 people in July 2006. It is not known if those who planted the bombs were on board the train.

The political blame game

It is astonishing that the attack could have happened at all. Even before the bloody attacks last summer the "Friendship Express" had the tightest of security measures. All passengers in India had to be at the station hours before departure in order for their luggage to be checked and their visas examined –- at least in theory.

Whether the rigorous security measures were actually carried out on Sunday remains in doubt. Several relatives of the train passengers told local journalists that they saw absolutely no controls before the train's departure. Furious relatives are now blaming the Indian authorities for not having done enough to ensure security.

The blame game likewise began immediately on the political level. The Indian government said the attack was an act of terrorism and blamed Islamist groups in Pakistan, who are fighting for the independence of Kashmir. India's junior home minister Sriprakash Jaiswal called the attack, "a conspiracy against India's stability and the peace process between India and Pakistan." Prime Minister Manmohan Singh expressed anguish at the loss of lives and promised that the culprits would be caught.

Pakistan, on the other hand, warned against over-hasty conclusions. President Pervez Musharraf called on his country and India not to let the attacks halt the peace process. "We will not allow elements which want to sabotage the ongoing peace process succeed in their nefarious designs." The Foreign Ministry was reserved. "All kinds of terrorists" could be behind the attack, said spokeswoman Tasnim Aslam. Pakistani security officials blamed radical Indian Hindus. Up to now no group has claimed responsibility for the bombing.

Whoever was behind the attack -- it marks a low point in the fragile relationship between India and Pakistan. After years of enmity between the nuclear-armed neighbors, there were signs recently of an easing of tensions. The terrorists' aim obviously was clearly to reverse the process. It is not for nothing that the train between India and Pakistan is called the "Friendship Express." It has been operating twice a week since 2004 and has been celebrated as a symbol of the two countries' recent rapprochement.

Crisis meeting in Delhi

The attack was likely timed to coincide with the arrival in India of a high-ranking delegation from Pakistan, led by Foreign Minister Khursheed Kasuri. The meeting was intended to focus on finding a solution to a dispute over a valley in the border region. Now it will be turned into a crisis meeting.

For the Pakistani journalist Talat Aslam, Editor-in-Chief of the influential newspaper The News, the question of who carried out the attack is of secondary importance. The main issue is the consequences: "The attack will mean a setback for the talks." For Aslam it is clear that the culprits wanted to prevent the process of rapprochement. "Naturally this train suits that purpose perfectly."

The background to the conflict goes right back to the founding of the two states. In 1947 after the British occupying power left, the Indian subcontinent was divided in two. Today's India, a nominally secular state, and Pakistan, a Muslim state. The border between the too was little more than an arbitrary line drawn on the map by the English as they left. Around 150 million Muslims live in present-day India –- as many as Pakistan has citizens.

The dispute over Kashmir

War has broken out four times between the two countries -- the first time was shortly after partition -- over the province of Kashmir, which is claimed by both states. The majority of the population in the mountainous region is Muslim and, according to surveys, most are in favor of independence. The war in 1965 was again about Kashmir which this time was divided into the Indian administered federal state of Jammu and Kashmir and the Pakistani Azad Kashmir. But even this didn’t resolve the conflict.

In 1972 the Shimla Peace Accord finally established the border between the two countries. But in May 1999, the "Kargil War" brought the world to the brink of a nuclear conflict: Pakistani troops and Muslim guerrillas occupied the regions of Kargil and Drass in Kashmir. India fought back -- only international mediation prevented the situation from deteriorating further.

Since then the governments in Islamabad and New Delhi have been making efforts to improve relations. Nevertheless, border disputes are almost continuous with India frequently blaming Pakistan for not doing enough to secure it.

With India blaming Pakistani terrorists for the Sunday attack, the conflict could flare once again. But if it does turn out that Pakistani Islamists were behind the attack, then they would be guilty of killing their own compatriots. According to initial reports, the majority of the dead were Pakistani.


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