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Bus riders jubilant after India-Pakistan crossing

Thousands line route as hopes for peace rise

SALAMABAD, India -- Greeted by cheers, tears, and dancing, bus riders made a historic crossing yesterday at the military boundary that divides Kashmir between India and Pakistan, walking across a metal bridge in a move both sides hope will lead to lasting peace.

Most of the passengers had been cut off from relatives by more than a half century of bloodshed in the subcontinent, and some wept as they crossed the so-called Line of Control, kneeling to kiss the ground.

''We have done this very late," said Nissar Ahmed Mir, 66, fighting tears as he stepped from the bus in this Indian town, where Indian officials feted passengers from Pakistan-controlled Kashmir with traditional dancing and food.

''We should have come home long ago," said Mir, who was returning to the Indian side for the first time since 1947, when his family migrated. Then he broke down weeping.

Thousands lined the route of the buses in Indian Kashmir to welcome the passengers, whistling and cheering. It was a significant public statement in a region that long ago became profoundly cynical about nearly any government initiative.

The bus service was launched despite an attack the day before in Srinagar, the capital of Indian Kashmir, by suspected Islamic militants who stormed the government tourism complex where passengers were staying. Six people were wounded in the gun battle, part of the complex was destroyed by fire and two militants were killed, but the passengers escaped unharmed. Both sides vowed not to let militants disrupt the occasion.

''This is the day we have long been waiting for," Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said at a ceremony yesterday morning before two buses left Srinagar. Passengers hugged the Indian leader, who told them they were part of ''a caravan of peace." He praised the Pakistani president, General Pervez Musharraf, for helping make the bus service possible, saying it had invigorated the often-stumbling India-Pakistan peace process, which began in early 2004.

In Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistani-controlled Kashmir, hundreds of people crowded rooftops and pressed together along the road where the bus departed, but neither Musharraf nor Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz attended.

Sikandar Hayyat Khan, the top elected official in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, urged India to watch over the travelers.

''Our brave people are going to Srinagar despite the attack there, and I ask the Indian government to provide protection to our people," he said in Muzaffarabad.

The bus service, which connects Srinagar to Muzaffarabad, runs along a twisting mountain road that was the region's main artery until 1948, when each country grabbed control of part of Kashmir. Their cease-fire line became the Line of Control and the India-Pakistan dispute over Kashmir, which they both still claim in its entirety, is considered one of the world's most dangerous flashpoints.

Workers on both sides have been hastily making repairs since the two countries decided in February to restart the service.

Two buses left from each capital, and the passengers walked across the 220-foot bridge on the Line of Control before reboarding buses waiting on the other side. A total of 49 passengers rode the buses yesterday, 30 from Pakistani-controlled Kashmir and 19 from the Indian portion. For now, the buses will only run once every two weeks.

There were no serious reports of violence yesterday, but a small explosion was reported near Pattan, a town on the Indian side of the route, about 10 minutes after the two buses passed through the area. There were no casualties.

Most of the region's militant groups oppose the bus service, insisting they want nothing short of freedom for Kashmir or union with Pakistan.

''We will rest only when we have transformed this bus into a coffin," said a statement faxed to The Associated Press yesterday from a grouping of militant organizations. They claimed responsibility for the bomb in Pattan, as well as the attack on the tourist complex.

While two passengers did get off the buses leaving Srinagar, apparently fearing militant attacks, most passengers said they wouldn't be deterred.

''It is my country and I have returned home," said Farida Ghani, a 59-year-old writer from Muzaffarabad, who was returning to Indian Kashmir for the first time since she was a child.

More than a dozen rebel groups have been fighting for Kashmir's independence from India or its merger with Pakistan since 1989. At least 66,000 people, mostly civilians, have been killed in the conflict.

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