'We were pinned down by fire as a gun battle took place in the heart of Kashmir'

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The Independent Online

When the gunfire suddenly sprayed across the street in front of us, we dived for the ground, scrabbling desperately to get behind a parked car. Up ahead, a woman had been hit and we saw her fall to the ground, the blood soaking her shirt. The Independent's photographer, Olivia, was trapped in a mêlée of fleeing people. A bullet whistled past her head, missing her by inches.

When the gunfire suddenly sprayed across the street in front of us, we dived for the ground, scrabbling desperately to get behind a parked car. Up ahead, a woman had been hit and we saw her fall to the ground, the blood soaking her shirt. The Independent's photographer, Olivia, was trapped in a mêlée of fleeing people. A bullet whistled past her head, missing her by inches.

There were five of us huddled behind an old Hindustan Ambassador car, trying impossibly to press ourselves deep into the ground, hoping the car's unarmoured body would stop the bullets - it wouldn't have.

You could feel the others' bodies shaking with fear. There was a sick feeling in your stomach, you could feel your heart pounding fit to burst and massive shocks of adrenaline kept hitting your body. You even found yourself praying. On each side of us, Indian soldiers took up positions, kneeling and cradling their assault rifles.

This was the scene on a busy street in central Srinagar yesterday - the day before the bus journey that is supposed to herald a new era of peace and prosperity for this broken land. We were pinned down by fire, unable to move, as a full-scale gun battle took place in the heart of Indian Kashmir's summer capital.

Militants attacked the complex where passengers on a historic new bus service were being kept under 24-hour police protection - in broad daylight.

Today, a new bus service connecting Indian and Pakistani Kashmir is to be inaugurated, the first tangible result of peace talks between India and Pakistan, and the first symbol of hope for Kashmiris. But that hope was savagely extinguished. The militants, who have been fighting to end Indian control of half of Kashmir, have threatened to make the bus a "coffin" for anyone who dares travel on it, and to target the passengers.

After the militants published the list of 24 passengers, which was supposed to have been kept secret, the Indian authorities put 21 of them under guard. The message was clear: the militants haven't gone away.

And as we crouched in the dirt yesterday, pleading with fate for our lives, fear was back on the streets of Srinagar in a way it hasn't been for years. The historic building that was attacked was burnt to the ground.

The Indian authorities said they were able to get all the passengers out safely, but dozens of civilians were injured, many of them seriously. One militant was killed, security forces were hunting for the other last night.

Now there will be grave fears for the safety of the bus as it winds its way through the Himalayas today - and for the inaugural ceremony in Srinagar which the Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, is to attend. The militants have made it clear they can strike where and when they please.

The scene ofthe gun battle is one of Srinagar's best protected areas, near the Chief Minister's house - that is why the passengers were being kept there. In fact, the inauguration ceremony was supposed to be held at the very building which was attacked, before it was moved to a stadium for security reasons.

We had heard gunfire and come to investigate, but it appeared everything was over. It wasn't. "Don't go there," a man running in the opposite direction told us as we approached the complex where the passengers were being held. Suddenly, militants inside the building opened fire at the Indian soldiers surrounding it. The authorities said all of this was caused by just two militants on what appeared to be a suicide mission. Unable to get to the building deep inside the complex where the passengers were being guarded, they attacked the building at the front, which houses a tourism centre and the Indian Airlines office.

As people emerged terrified from behind cars and low walls, to an eerie silence, a new burst of gunfire rang out, so close by it made your ears sing, and a soldier near by suddenly stumbled, blood oozing from his foot. Distraught relatives thronged around the building, begging police and soldiers for information. The militants managed to start a fire in the building - how is not clear - and civilians who had been crouching for cover inside had to hurl themselves through the windows to escape.

Explosions echoed as gas cylinders inside exploded, sending blasts of heat that made you turn your face away. It was so intense firemen could not get close enough to put it out, and the historic Srinagar landmark was burnt to the ground.

A priceless collection of original photographs of Kashmir by the legendary photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson was feared to have been destroyed. "What will this achieve?" asked J A Rathore, a local Kashmiri. "This bus service is a good thing. But what we see now is that these confidence-building measures will never work."

A claim of responsibility was made in the names of the four militant groups: the Save Kashmir Movement, al-Nasireen, al-Arifeen and Farzandan-e-Millat. The first two are well known, the others less so. Why the militants have decided to target the passengers remains unclear. Until now they have enjoyed considerable popularity among Kashmiris opposed to Indian rule and embittered by the savage tactics of the Indian military here. But they will alienate these people by turning against bus passengers who are trying to visit relatives in Pakistani Kashmir whom most have not seen for decades.

Many here believe what happened is a sign of the militants' desperation. One Pakistani minister went so far as to accuse India of staging the attack to discredit the militants. But one thing was sure. This was a return to the level of violence that plagued Kashmir at the height of the conflict. Nobody on the bus tomorrow, or those of us among the press who will follow it, will feel comfortable.

We watched as Cartier-Bresson's pictures burnt and a Srinagar landmark collapsed in a shower of sparks. Kashmir's history was being burned before our eyes. All anyone could see in the future was more burning.

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