SRINAGAR, India, April 6 -- Islamic militants stormed a government complex that was supposed to be a haven for passengers scheduled to make a historic bus journey across the divided Himalayan region 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 and one gunman was killed, but none of the bus passengers was hurt, authorities said. Flames and thick, black smoke rose from the large, yellow-brick building, in a busy downtown area of this lakeside city, as bursts of gunfire sent soldiers and onlookers scurrying for cover.
An Indian soldier runs for cover as fire engulfs the government complex housing passengers set for a historic trip across the divided Kashmir region.
(Mukhtar Khan -- AP)
Officials said the bus service would be inaugurated as planned Thursday. The new line will link Kashmir's Indian- and Pakistani-controlled sides for the first time since the region's violent and bloody division after the two countries gained independence in 1947.
Provided it can be sustained, the bus service would represent the most tangible achievement in peace negotiations that began in January 2004 between the two nuclear-armed rivals, which have fought three wars and nearly fought another in 2002. It would also be 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 radicals who reject any compromise with India over the status of Jammu and Kashmir, as the Muslim-majority region is formally known. Over the last several days, militants have stepped up threats to disrupt the service, vowing to turn the first bus into a "coffin" and planting several bombs along its planned route between Srinagar, on the Indian side of Kashmir, and Muzzafarabad in the Pakistani-controlled area.
In a telephone call to the Associated Press, a man who identified himself as Samir Abdullah asserted responsibility for Wednesday's attack on behalf of four radical Islamic groups that had threatened the bus service. Such groups have previously operated with support from Pakistan's military and intelligence service. However, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's president, has pledged repeatedly over the last several years to prevent the groups' fighters from crossing the Line of Control, the heavily fortified cease-fire line that separates Indian and Pakistani forces in the province.
Buses had been scheduled to depart from Srinagar and Muzzafarabad on Thursday morning, and Indian and Pakistani officials vowed Wednesday afternoon that the service would go ahead as planned.
"These are desperate acts of desperate people," Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said in a statement. "There is no change with regard to the flagging off of the bus. The peace process and the journey of peace will go on."
Singh still plans to travel to Srinagar to send off the first bus from a cricket stadium on Thursday morning, officials said. The bus will travel through the picturesque orchards and fields of Kashmir Valley, ringed by snow-covered peaks, and carry passengers across the Line of Control.
In Islamabad, Khurshid Mahmud 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."
Wednesday's attack was the most daring yet in the militants' campaign to prevent the buses from rolling. It targeted a government complex that housed the offices of state-run tourist corporations and, for the last several days, has sheltered 25 Kashmiris selected to make the first bus journey from the Indian side of the province.
The passengers had been moved into the complex for their safety after several received warnings not to make the trip. The building was ringed by security personnel at the time of the attack.
Initial reports indicated the attack was carried out by two gunmen. Gopal Sharma, the director general of police in Srinagar, said the assault began shortly before 4 p.m. when one of the gunmen sneaked onto the compound, opened fire and then set the wooden roof ablaze.
The fire spread very quickly, Sharma told the private NDTV television network. "It is a matter of investigation as to how he got in," he said
Sharma said the bus passengers had been in a "hotel block" at the back of the complex and were evacuated by security personnel shortly after the assault began. Security forces regained control of the compound after about 45 minutes, Sharma said.
Journalists who reached the scene about 4:30 p.m. found the building in flames. The heat could be felt from 100 yards away. There was a sharp burst of automatic-rifle fire. A woman ran toward the complex in tears, saying she had a sister inside the building. Firefighters converged on the scene, as did special forces soldiers in black head scarves and body armor. The shooting appeared to stop shortly before 5 p.m.
Mohammed Latif, an employee of Indian Airlines, said he was in his office on the ground floor of the complex with about 10 co-workers when the assault began. "We just heard the shots and we went under the chairs," said Latif, 36. He and the others escaped by climbing out of a window.