LINE OF CONTROL BETWEEN INDIA AND PAKISTAN, April 7 -- Amid threats of violence and tears of joy, India and Pakistan kicked off a historic bus service Thursday across the divided Himalayan province of Kashmir, reuniting relatives who had not seen each other for decades and boosting hopes for a lasting peace between the nuclear-armed rivals.
The first group of 31 passengers arrived from Pakistan's side of the province at 2 p.m., walking across a 220-foot steel bridge, where they were mobbed by Indian officials and soldiers bearing gifts, sweets and garlands of marigolds. One of the Kashmiri passengers knelt to kiss the asphalt. Some wept.
An Indian Kashmiri, left, hugs a relative who arrived from the Pakistan side of Kashmir on a historic bus journey.
(Saurabh Das -- AP)
About three hours later, 19 passengers from the Indian side of Kashmir crossed to Pakistan's end of the bridge, where they received a similar if slightly more restrained welcome. Dignitaries and soldiers from both countries mingled in the center of the span, smiling and shaking hands in an area where the two armies were regularly pounding each other with artillery less than two years ago.
"I'm coming after 55 years," said Sharif Hussain Bukhari, a retired judge who traveled from his home in Pakistan's side of Kashmir to visit his childhood village of Kreeri as well as a brother and other relatives, most of whom he had never met. Asked to describe his feelings, Bukhari replied simply, "I am on my own land."
The bus service established the first link between the two sides of the province in nearly 60 years and is the most tangible achievement to emerge from peace negotiations between India and Pakistan that began last year in January. But the bus route has been bitterly opposed by Islamic militants who want Kashmir to be reunited as an independent state or as part of Pakistan and are opposed to any territorial compromise with India.
Militants have issued death threats against those making the journey and fired rifle grenades at one of the two buses traveling from Srinagar, on India's side of the province, to the Line of Control, the cease-fire line that divides Indian and Pakistani forces. The grenades exploded harmlessly.
The grenade attack came a day after gunmen assaulted a government complex in Srinagar where the bus passengers had been moved for their safety. The two gunmen were killed in the attack, which injured six people and set the building ablaze. None of the passengers was injured, but five subsequently opted out of the trip.
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh traveled to Srinagar to flag off the first bus for Muzaffarabad, 113 miles to the west at the other end of the route in Pakistan-held territory. "The caravan of peace has started," Singh told the crowd of thousands at the cricket stadium where the bus journey began. "Nothing can stop it."
The mood in Pakistan was somewhat more subdued, in part because officials have been leery about such confidence-building measures in the absence of tangible progress toward a final settlement of the Kashmir issue, which they regard as the main bone of contention with India. Neither the president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, nor Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz attended the sendoff of the buses in Muzaffarabad, the Associated Press reported.
The most joyful reaction was among Kashmiris, for whom the inauguration of the bus service represents the breaching of psychological as well as physical barriers in the Muslim majority province.
The province has been divided since shortly after the simultaneous founding of India and Pakistan in 1947, when each side claimed it for its own. The countries have since fought three wars and still maintain formidable military forces on both sides of the Line of Control, although tensions have diminished since a cease-fire was declared along the de facto border in 2003.
Although the bus service will run only twice a month at the outset, Indian officials hold out hope that the service could be expanded and provide an opening for trade. Currently, the buses run only to the line of control, where passengers cross the bridge on foot and take another bus to their destination. Indian buses will not cross into Pakistani territory and vice versa.
After an agreement for the service was reached in February, India raced to prepare the route, which snakes along the Jhelum River amid the rice paddies, poplar trees and apple orchards of the Kashmir Valley, surrounded by snowy peaks. The route crosses the Jhelum and enters Pakistani territory at the remote Kaman military outpost, which until recently was on the front-line of the conflict over Kashmir.
"You couldn't even put your head out, it was so dicey," Col. D.M. Gupta recalled of the intense shelling that ended with the cease-fire. Gupta commands the army engineering unit that de-mined the area and replaced the derelict footbridge over the Jhelum with today's gleaming white span, an effort that brought him into close daily contact with his Pakistani counterparts across the Line of Control.
"It was a very cordial atmosphere with them," recalled Gupta, who used a field telephone to communicate with Pakistani officers whom he calls by their first names. "Let's hope it stays."
As the first passengers arrived on gleaming new buses from Muzaffarabad, an Indian color guard played a Punjabi folk tune on bagpipes.
The passengers then assembled behind a green iron gate on the Pakistani side of the bridge, and an Indian army signalman, Naresh Kumar, raised a white flag in the universal symbol of truce. A Pakistani signalman did the same and the gates swung open.
Among the first across was Zia Sardar, a lawyer from Muzaffarabad in a sport coat and slacks, who knelt to kiss the ground, then declared, "The biggest ambition in my life has been fulfilled today."
Later in the afternoon, the two buses from Srinagar arrived at the same crossing point. Among the passengers was Khalid Hussein, a retired civil servant from Jammu, in the southern part of the state, who was traveling with his wife to visit her aunts and cousins.
On Wednesday night, following the militant attack in Srinagar, Hussein and his wife watched on television as flames consumed the complex where they had been staying a few hours earlier. His wife, he said, had doubts about the trip.
But Hussein said he told her, "We must not miss this chance."