Bomb attacks kill 66 on Friendship Express

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The Independent Online

The one detail all the witnesses remembered was the children screaming as they burned to death, trapped inside a railway carriage that was being engulfed by flames as their parents desperately tried to get them out, smashing the windows and trying to claw their way through the panicking crowd. Very few made it out alive.

At least 66 people died when bombs went off on the Friendship Express from India to Pakistan at about midnight, local time, on Sunday and many of them were women and children.

It must have been a horrific death. The heat was so intense it melted the metal supports and railings inside the carriages. There were no blast injuries, no quick deaths; the bombs were designed to set off fires, and the deaths must have been slow and agonising. Witnesses told yesterday of desperately trying to help as they watched those inside the carriages burn to death - children sacrificed to somebody's political aim. And no one knows why.

The identity and the motives of the attackers remains a mystery. There were unconfirmed reports that one man had been detained, and Indian police said they had some leads, but they were not prepared to make any details public.

Usually after such an attack in India, the authorities would point the finger of suspicion at Pakistani militants. But most of the victims were Pakistanis on their way home.

"The train passed through at 11.55pm," Sebhedar Karan Singh, the headman of a nearby village, said. "We saw the flames and ran to help. Some of the passengers were jumping off the train with their clothes on fire. We tried to put out the fire but it was too big. The only ones screaming were the children. I can't imagine why anyone would do this. We are the same, Indians and Pakistanis."

The train was on its way from Delhi to Attari, on the border with Pakistan. It is one of only two train services that are allowed to connect the two countries: passengers change on to a Pakistani train at the border. It hadn't got far when the bombs went off.

"We were sleeping after having dinner," one woman survivor told Pakistani television. "When we woke up there was fire. Everyone was crying, 'Please save us, please stop the train'."

"I rushed toward the door but the doors and windows were jammed," Mohammed Haroon told reporters. "I climbed out and just ran, despite the pain in my feet [both of which were heavily bandaged]. There was smoke and dust everywhere and everyone was in a frenzy. I saw the bodies of a man and three children who had been completely burned."

The train was about to pull into Dewana station when the station master, Vinod Kumar Gupta, saw the carriages in flames and pulled the emergency signal to stop it. But in the middle of the countryside, with the nearest fire engines miles away, it was too late to do anything to help.

The two carriages that were targeted were third class, the cheapest seats on the train. In a cruel twist, the bars across the windows to stop people hanging out of them stopped many of those trapped inside from climbing out to safety.

The authorities said they found evidence that the fire had been started by two bombs, and a further two had failed to go off.

The attack came just days before the anniversary of another train fire, one that set in motion India's worst religious killings of recent years. On 27 February 2002, 58 Hindu pilgrims died in a train fire at Godhra in Gujarat. The fire was widely believed to have been started by Muslims, although a recent inquiry found that it was accidental. In the riots that followed, at least 2,000 people were killed, most of them Muslims.

It is possible the Friendship Express bombing was revenge for Godhra, either by Hindu militants or Muslim extremists.

The attack was also reminiscent of last July's Mumbai bombings, in which at least 209 people were killed in a series of blasts on commuter trains.

The Indian Railway Minister, Laloo Prasad Yadav, said the attack was "an attempt to derail the improving relationship between India and Pakistan". Both countries were adamant that a planned visit to Delhi today by the Pakistani Foreign Minister, Khurshid Kasuri, would go ahead.

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