SRINAGAR, India, April 6 -- Islamic militants on Wednesday stormed a government complex sheltering passengers scheduled to make a historic bus journey across the divided Himalayan province of Kashmir, setting the building ablaze and underscoring the continued threat to peace negotiations between India and Pakistan.
At least six people were injured in the attack, in which both of the gunmen also died, but none of the bus passengers was hurt, and the service will be inaugurated as planned on Thursday morning, authorities said. Flames and thick black smoke rose from the large yellow-brick building in a busy downtown area of this lakeside city, as occasional bursts of gunfire sent bystanders scurrying for cover.
The new bus line will link the two sides of the province for the first time since its division between India and Pakistan after their bloody simultaneous birth in 1947.
The agreement to start the bus service represents the most tangible achievement since the two nuclear powers kicked off peace negotiations in January 2004. It is also a powerful symbol of hope for Kashmiris eager to see their province -- and in many cases their families -- reunited after decades of strife.
But the service is opposed by Islamic militants who reject any compromise with India over the status of Jammu and Kashmir, as the Muslim-majority province is formally known. Over the last several days, militants have stepped up their threats to disrupt the service. They have vowed to turn the first bus into a "coffin" and have planted several bombs along its planned route between Srinagar, on the Indian side of Kashmir, and Muzzafarabad in the part that Pakistan controls. Buses are scheduled to leave each city on Thursday morning.
Wednesday's attack was the most spectacular and daring to date in the militants' campaign to prevent the buses from rolling. It targeted a large government building that houses the offices of state-run tourist corporations and, for the last several days, about 25 Kashmiris who were selected to make the first bus journey. It was unclear how the fire started. By late afternoon, the front half of the structure had been all but destroyed by the flames. The passengers were evacuated about 10 minutes after the attack began, witnesses said.
Indian and Pakistani officials vowed that the service would go ahead as planned.
"These are desperate acts of desperate people," Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said in a statement relayed by a spokesman. "There is no change with regard to the flagging off of the bus. The peace process and the journey of peace will go on."
In Islamabad, Khursheed Kasuri, Pakistan's foreign minister, said: "Pakistan strongly condemns anyone attacking innocent people. What is their crime? Their only wish is to meet with their relatives. They are not politicians."