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Islamic Militants Claim Responsibility for Kashmir Attack


Islamic militants have claimed responsibility for an attack on a government guesthouse being used to shelter passengers on the first bus in 50 years to cross between the Indian and Pakistani sides of Kashmir. But, authorities say the bus will depart as scheduled Thursday.

Gunshots ring out while bright orange flames engulf the roof of the government tourist office in Srinagar. It is not clear how the fire started or who fired the shots, which come as emergency workers and security personnel work to put out a blaze that sends plumes of black smoke into the sky.

The building was being used by security forces as a guest house, providing protection for many of the two dozen passengers due to take the first bus from the Indian to the Pakistani sides of Kashmir on Thursday. It is unclear whether the passengers or any others in the building, which housed several offices, were injured.

Farooq, an employee of Indian Airlines, says he and two colleagues helped evacuate 30 people from the building. Unaware there was a fire, he said, they were waiting until the shooting stopped before trying to escape the building.

"And then we saw some fire and the smoke coming out," he said. "So I sent all the women folks and everybody out. We two were left there. We had a third colleague also, I do not know about him right now. He could manage to break open the window ... I do not know how he managed that. Then we jumped out of the window."

Four Islamic militant groups claimed responsibility later in the day for what they said was a suicide attack on the building complex. So far there has been no information from Indian security personnel as to how the attack was carried off.

Hundreds of security personnel have been deployed throughout Srinagar and along the 170-kilometer route the bus is due to take Thursday. It is the first time the crossing at Kashmir's de-facto border, called the Line of Control, has been opened to civilians since India and Pakistan were given independence by Britain in 1947.

India and Pakistan have fought two of their three wars over Kashmir, which each has claimed as its own since independence.

Since 1989, Islamic militants have fought an insurgency in the two-thirds of Kashmir that India controls, seeking either merger with Pakistan, or independence.

In the past few days, militant groups have issued repeated threats against the passengers preparing for the historic bus ride. The government took the passengers into protective custody following the threats.

New Delhi and Islamabad have undertaken a series of so-called "confidence-building measures" to resolve the Kashmir conflict during the past year, and the opening of the bus link is the latest. Analysts describe the link as a huge step forward for the people of Kashmir, because it will reunite families divided by decades of political animosity.

Farhat Ara's husband had been staying at the guest-house since Saturday. Just hours before the attack, she said she was worried for his safety. But she says her husbands' visit to the Pakistani side was too important for him to change his mind.

She said he has not been to see his family in years, and his father died in 1991, so he would like to visit the grave. Also, her husband's brother and his sick sister and aunt are there, and he would like to see them at least once.

Despite the attack, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is still expected to come to Srinagar to see the bus off on Thursday. Another bus is due to depart from the Pakistani side of Kashmir, bound for India, later the same day.

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