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Prisoner before peace bus trip
- Passengers not allowed to meet anyone, kept huddled behind razor wires

Srinagar, April 4: Passengers due to take the first bus to Muzaffarabad on Thursday have been moved to a high-security zone, behind machinegun nests and razor wire.

More than a dozen people from Rajouri and Poonch, who were supposed to arrive here via Jammu, have been kept in a safe place in the winter capital, while the rest ' who are in Srinagar ' are at the tourist reception centre.

Only 29 people from India have been given seats on the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus that will be flagged off by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh from the Sher-e-Kashmir cricket stadium. But police refuse to admit that the pooling together of passengers was triggered by militant threats to target them.

'These passengers have to receive travel instructions. They have to undergo medical check-ups and be briefed about immigration formalities. It is not that they could go from their homes on April 7 and board the bus as if they are going for a picnic. Yes, security of the passengers is our concern, but building an impression that the passengers were shifted solely for security reasons is misplaced,' said inspector-general Javaid Mukhdoomi.

Policemen dressed in battle fatigues frisked people entering the Srinagar complex, just across the road from the government radio and television offices where a massive car bomb blast killed five persons two years ago.

Heavily-armed police in sandbagged bunkers guarded the mud-yellow brick-and-timber tourist centre, housing several historic two-storey buildings in the heart of the city's high-security zone.

'Nobody is allowed to meet the passengers,' a security official guarding the building told reporters from behind a metal barricade tipped with sharp spikes.

The passengers are a harried lot. 'We were better off without meeting our relatives across the border as we are presently not being allowed to meet our near and dear ones this side,' complained Abdul Rashid.

'Why should I risk my life' Well, if all the other passengers board the bus, I would do it, but if boarding the bus becomes a matter of life and death, count me out please,' said another passenger as he boarded a waiting police vehicle.

Earlier, Kashmiris planning to travel to Muzaffarabad had dismissed the rebel threat. But now, many of them are not so sure.

'My father feels scared now. He is desperate to meet his brother across, but cannot decide now after new militant threats,' said a Srinagar resident whose father is among the chosen 29.

The homes of some Srinagar residents due to travel on the bus were locked and deserted today. Neighbours of Fatima Bhat, due to travel on the bus to meet daughter Wazira Begum, said she had gone into hiding after the threats.

The Ashok Leyland buses purchased by the state road transport corporation completed the first leg of its dry run on the road up to Kaman Bridge in Uri. 'The buses would be returning to Srinagar today to complete the final leg of the dry run,' said a senior official.

The buses are fitted with the latest trappings like air-conditioning, central heating, stereo systems, TV and fashionable upholstery.

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