DEWANA, India -- Leaders of India and Pakistan pressed ahead yesterday with their peace process, hours after twin bombs sparked a fire that killed 66 people aboard a train that links the two countries.
The fire destroyed two coaches on the Samjhauta Express, about an hour after the train left New Delhi on its way to the Pakistan border. Officials said the attack was timed ahead of the arrival of Pakistani Foreign Minister Khursheed Kasuri, who was expected today in the Indian capital.
"This is an attempt to derail the improving relationship between India and Pakistan," Railway Minister Laloo Prasad told reporters.
Pakistan quickly decried the attack, and Indian officials took pains to avoid laying any quick blame.
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh declared his country's "abhorrence for this heinous terrorist act," and expressed his condolences by telephone to Pakistani Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz, according to Singh's office. Most of the dead were Pakistani.
India will do "everything possible to ensure that its perpetrators are punished," the statement said.
A Home Ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the investigation, said no suspects had been ruled out -- from Kashmiri separatists to Hindu extremists.
Speaking to India's CNN-IBN television, Kasuri called the bombing a "terrible act of terrorism" and said "the peace process must go on with greater vigor and greater determination."
Navtej Sarna, spokesman for India's foreign ministry, read a statement that focused, in large part, on help being offered by India to Pakistani families.
"The entire process is being carried out in cooperation with Pakistani authorities," he said, adding that Pakistani diplomats were visiting the scene and that visas would be issued quickly for Pakistani relatives of the dead and injured.
"We will not allow elements which want to sabotage the ongoing peace process and succeed in their nefarious designs," Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf was quoted as saying by state-run Associated Press of Pakistan.
India's junior home minister, Sriprakash Jaiswal, said the bombs were intended only to start a fire and were timed to explode ahead of Kasuri's arrival.
Authorities say two suitcases packed with crude unexploded bombs and bottles of gasoline were found in undamaged train cars, indicating the fire had been sparked by similar devices.
Witnesses described a horrific scene as the train stopped on an isolated stretch of railway near the village of Dewana, about 50 miles north of New Delhi. The train's driver apparently didn't realize what was happening in the seconds after the blasts, until the assistant station manager in Dewana saw fire shooting from the cars as they sped past.
"I saw flames leaping out of the windows," said Vinod Kumar Gupta, who pulled the signal ordering the train to stop. The train -- which normally races through this region at about 55-60 miles per hour -- took five minutes to stop.
As on most Indian trains, the windows of many cars are barred for security reasons, sealing in many victims, and officials said at least one door was fused shut by the heat.
"We couldn't save anyone," said Rajinder Prasad, a laborer who raced with his neighbors to the scene, scooping water from a reservoir and throwing it at flames. "They were screaming inside, but no one could get out."
From the less-damaged rear coach, some people were seen "jumping out with their bodies on fire," said Bharti Arora, a Haryana state railway police official.
But in the forward coach, where the flames were more intense, few escaped.
Fire engines arrived about 45 minutes later, but it was another two hours before the flames were extinguished.
Arora put the death toll at 66, with many bodies burned beyond recognition. At least 30 passengers were hospitalized, officials said, with a dozen critically injured people brought to New Delhi.
Families converged on the nearby Panipat hospital, turned into a makeshift morgue. Outside, police set up a desk next to a stack of wooden coffins where worried relatives could search through piles of burned, sodden Pakistani passports and other possessions.
"We have seen the bodies but they are in no state to be identified, not from their clothes, not from their faces," said Shamim Khan, a relative of one of the passengers.
The train was traveling from New Delhi to Atari, the last station before the Pakistan border. At Atari, passengers switch to a Pakistani train that takes them to Lahore, Pakistan.
The New Delhi-Lahore train link was suspended after a 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament that India blamed on Pakistan and which nearly led to a war between the two.
But relations between the nuclear-armed neighbors have improved, and the train service -- restarted in 2004 -- is one of the most visible results.