India, Pakistan undeterred by train blasts

As investigators scoured the site of a train bombing that killed more than 66 people in northern India on Sunday night, India's official reaction was markedly different from the commuter rail bombings that roiled Mumbai (Bombay) in July 2006.

Those attacks, which killed 257 people in coordinated explosions throughout the city's transit system, sent diplomatic relations between Pakistan and India into a tailspin. India accused Pakistan of not doing enough to crack down on terrorist groups, stalling diplomatic engagements for months.

But Sunday's bombings may represent a departure from the fragile diplomatic cycle between India and Pakistan that made peace talks between them so vulnerable to terrorist attacks. Unlike the response to the Mumbai bombings, the reaction to the attack on the Samjhauta Express underscored India's new reluctance to point fingers at Pakistani militants. Instead, Indian and Pakistani officials have denounced the act of terrorism and are hewing toward peace in a process that began in 2004.

"We expect the peace process will hold," said Khursheed Mehmood Kasuri, Pakistan's foreign minister on Monday.

"No hasty conclusions will be drawn on who is responsible for these attacks," Mr. Kasuri told New Delhi Television, a local news channel, expressing grief over the death of innocent civilians, a majority of whom are Pakistani.

Scheduled peace talks

The attack came one day before Kasuri was scheduled to visit India to attend peace talks with his Indian counterpart Pranab Mukherjee. The fact that Kasuri is to arrive in New Delhi Tuesday despite the attacks appeared to signal both sides' commitment to continuing negotiations.

"This is a very unique attack. The target is unique: both Indians and Pakistanis, together," says Ajit Doval, the former director of India's Intelligence Bureau (IB). "The irony of this attack is that it does the opposite of what it's trying to achieve – it brings the people of both countries together."

Two coaches of the Samjhauta (Friendship) Express, a biweekly train service connecting Delhi and Lahore that began nearly three decades ago, were set in flames by a crude cocktail of low-intensity explosives and kerosene bombs, say forensic experts.

Along with the dead, some 50 people were critically injured.

This train service, which connects thousands of Indian and Pakistani families divided by the border, is widely regarded as a visual symbol of the peace process between the two nations. The service was stalled after a terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament in 2002, only to be resumed again in 2004.

"It's the most visible symbol of peace and a very soft target," says Ayaz Amir, a political commentator for Islamabad-based The Dawn newspaper. The majority of travelers on the low-priced rail line live in poverty.

Just as the Kashmir earthquake united India and Pakistan in the rescue and rebuilding effort two years ago, some analysts say, India and Pakistan should use Sunday's attacks as an springboard for continuing negotiations.

"We need to put more meaning in the peace process. Let's move on with it," says Mr. Amir. "We mustn't let the terrorists win."

Continuing investigation

Indian investigators have been relatively tight-lipped about their investigation – a different approach from other high-profile terrorist attacks in India.

"The modus operandi is new," says J. S. Mahanwal, an investigator for the government-owned forensic laboratory in the state of Haryana where the explosions occurred. "[The perpetrators] had used low-intensity explosives to trigger the blast and kerosene to ignite the fire."

The attack was orchestrated, says Mr. Mahanwal, to cause large scale destruction by fire. Because the train reached speeds of up to 60 miles per hour, passing winds were able to spread the fire rapidly throughout the train.

The intent, he adds, was to trigger more bombs in the other coaches of the train. Two unexploded suitcases filled with kerosene bottles were recovered from three other coaches.

A baffling target

Mr. Doval said that he suspects the same perpetrators involved in previous attacks – namely Pakistan-based Islamist groups Lashkar-i Tayyaba and Jaish-e Muhammed.

What is baffling about the attacks, he says, is that the bombers are targeting Pakistani citizens.

Doval points out that terrorism in the disputed region of Kashmir – the most contentious issue between the two countries – is at an all-time low.

The number of politically motivated killings has dropped by two-thirds since 2001 to three from 10 per day – the lowest since the Kashmiri uprising began in the early 1990's. The declining attacks could be a sign that Pakistan-based terrorist groups operating in India are feeling increased pressure from the Pakistani government, says Doval.

"Targeting Pakistani civilians could be a sign of their resentment," Doval says of the Kashmiri separatists.

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