Explosion Rocks Indian Train, Kills Scores An explosion on a train in India has killed at least 66 people. Authorities think a crude bomb started a fire as the train headed to Pakistan. India's railway minister says the explosion was aimed at undermining the peace process between the nuclear-armed neighbors.
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Explosion Rocks Indian Train, Kills Scores

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Explosion Rocks Indian Train, Kills Scores

Explosion Rocks Indian Train, Kills Scores

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

At least 66 people are dead following bomb explosions and a fire aboard a train in India that was headed for Pakistan. The bombing has implications for the peace process between India and Pakistan, which has been staggering along for several years now.

I'm joined from New Delhi by our correspondent there, Philip Reeves. Hello.

PHILIP REEVES: Hello.

MONTAGNE: What exactly happened?

REEVES: Well, this is a train that runs up from Delhi, which is India's capital, to a place called Atari. That's the last station before the border with Pakistan. And there the passengers switch to another train, which takes them to the Pakistani city of Lahore. Now in the middle of the night the train set off with more than 750 people on board some 50 or 60 miles outside Delhi, near a place called Panipat.

A fierce fire broke out, engulfing two wagons. Officials say that this was caused by crude bombs, apparently in suitcases hooked up to bottles full of gasoline. And they found several of these devices that didn't go off.

MONTAGNE: And what is known about the victims?

REEVES: They're mostly Pakistanis. In fact, most of those onboard were from Pakistan, although they do include some Indians, too. Trains, by the way, in South Asia often have bars on the windows of the lower-class wagons. And it appears that the victims were trapped. Pictures of the charred wreckage suggests that the fire was very intense, enough to melt the paint on the sides of the wagons and also to twist metal out of shape.

MONTAGNE: Has anyone or any group taken responsibility for this bombing? And is there any evidence of who might have done it?

REEVES: Well, in India, you know, suspicion will be directed towards Islamist militants trying to destroy the peace process between Indian and Pakistan. For instance, because they oppose any compromise on Kashmir, the critical but still completely unresolved issue. A number of officials are already talking about the attack in these terms as a calculated attempt to disrupt peacemaking.

It may be significant also that the train service, the fact that it was running, was actually an achievement brought about by the peace process and something of a symbol of it. The service was stopped after an attack on India's parliament in 2001 and only resumed in 2004.

But Islamist militancy is not the only possibility. It's also worth noting this bombing occurred in the run-up to the fifth anniversary of the killing of 60 Hindu pilgrims in a train fire blamed on Muslims. That incident was huge here and it triggered a terrible wave of communal bloodletting in the state of Gujarat in which several thousand people died, most of them Muslims killed by Hindu extremists.

MONTAGNE: But yet talking about the route that the train has taken, I've heard that train referred to as the peace train.

REEVES: Right.

MONTAGNE: How serious is the risk that this will disrupt the peacemaking efforts between India and Pakistan?

REEVES: The peace process has been slow, but it has also proved to be robust. For example, when some 200 people were killed last July after a series of bombs went off, you will recall in trains in Mumbai, India's commercial capital, the process did stall for a bit but it did not collapse.

I think the extent of the damage will depend to a large degree on the domestic reaction to this event. So far, though, the signs are positive. In fact, Pakistan's president, General Pervez Musharraf, has said it will not sabotage peacemaking but will have the opposite effect by strengthening Pakistan's resolve to attain what he called the mutually desired objective of sustainable peace.

This is not the sort of language you'd have heard a few years ago, especially given the fact that most of the victims appear to be Pakistanis. Interestingly also, the attack happened a day before Pakistan's foreign minister is due to come to India. He's indicated he wants that visit to continue.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Philip Reeves speaking from New Delhi. Thanks very much.

REEVES: You're welcome.

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