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Fuse of panic burns under bus of peace

Srinagar, April 5: Srinagar is being prettied for Thursday's date, but it's the 56 kilometres from the capital of this beautiful valley to Baramulla that is grabbing all the attention.

This morning, suspected rebels set off a home-made bomb on the route of the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus, wounding seven road workers digging by the highway near Pattan town.

The spot is 30 km from Srinagar and within the 56-km stretch of fear, nearly every inch of which will be occupied by security force personnel two days from now. On that day, the bus, which will re-establish contact between the two sides of Kashmir after over half a century, rolls.

Less than an hour ago, soldiers had defused a powerful landmine a few miles away on the same road. The area beyond Baramulla till the Line of Control in Uri is sanitised.

Militants have repeatedly threatened to kill passengers and drivers. The warning came again today. 'If you board the bus and strengthen Indian hands, you will writhe in blood and dust,' four militant groups said.

PTI quoted official sources as saying at least one woman passenger has dropped out and two more could.

The combine of Al-Nasreen, Al-Arifeen, Save Kashmir Movement and Farzandan-e-Milat said in the statement that the bus service was a 'sugar-coated poison the Indian government had decided to feed to the present struggle against its rule in Kashmir'.

The groups had earlier said they had the list of passengers who would travel on the first bus that will be flagged off by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh from Srinagar's Sher-e-Kashmir stadium. Today, they said they had 'got the list of prospective passengers' from persons closest to chief minister Mufti Mohammed Sayeed'.

The Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus is the biggest visible sign of the thaw in Indo-Pak relations with a strong emotional appeal for families divided on either side of Kashmir.

But, given the threats from militants, passengers from the Indian side have been living in virtual quarantine without being able to meet even family members until the day of the journey.

Although militants could strike on either side of the border, there does not seem to be any real scare in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.

The hardline faction of Kashmir's separatist Hurriyat Conference's chapter on the Pakistani side, however, announced a boycott of all government functions in connection with the inaugural bus service. Hurriyat hardliners in India have also opposed it.

On the contrary, moderate Hurriyat leaders are thinking of taking another step down the road to peace. Reluctant to meet the Prime Minister when he came to Kashmir in October, they are planning to seek talks with him and Pervez Musharraf during his visit to India, separately.

Hurriyat leader Abdul Ghani Bhat said the group might even send a written request. Bhat believes that the government is making too much of the militant threat to harm passengers. 'They are not going to kill all the 29 families because it will turn the people against them, ' he said.

Those who spoke to the passengers yesterday said that most had factored in the possibility of attacks. 'What they are more worried about is the likely backlash once they return from Muzaffarabad and the hype around the bus trip subsides,' a source said.

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