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BUS TRIAL BY BLAZE

Arms aloft, she leaped to the ground through the window, a wall of fire blazing behind her like a crimson curtain at sunset. Soon, a procession of flailing figures followed ' middle-aged men and women hurling themselves out.

This is the frame that will remain frozen in the collective consciousness on the eve of the biggest civilian peace initiative in the subcontinent.

Testing the nerves of the peace-drivers, militants on Wednesday stormed a complex sheltering passengers due to travel on the bus between the divided Kashmirs and ensured that the building was burnt down.

All the passengers scheduled to take Thursday's inaugural run escaped unharmed because most were being quarantined at the rear of the complex because of recurring militant threats.

India, with little option but to carry on with the trip, declared in the evening that the programme would go ahead as scheduled. Pakistan condemned the attack in the 'strongest possible' language but took its time in announcing that the bus from its side would roll on Thursday.

Indian officials admitted in private that the failure to protect the Tourist Reception Centre building ' which had come to symbolise the bus service and which was thought to be one of the most secure corners in India with almost the entire world watching ' will deal a severe blow to efforts to boost the confidence of future bus passengers.

The attack was in one of Srinagar's most protected areas, near the chief minister's official residence and the government radio and television broadcasting offices.

But the political leadership is determined to make the best of the worst scenario, announcing that Sonia Gandhi, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and foreign minister Natwar Singh would all be present in Srinagar on Thursday for the flag-off.

In sharp contrast, neither Pervez Musharraf nor any other senior member of his government will be present when the reciprocal bus leaves Muzaffarabad tomorrow.

The ostensible reason for the absence is the Pakistani leaders' preoccupations with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao but some analysts feel Islamabad has wisely chosen to keep a safe distance from the live-wire occasion in Muzaffarabad.

Against the backdrop of the terror strike, the marked difference in the approach of the two sides has raised questions whether India committed a tactical mistake by pitching the bus launch as a high-voltage spectacle.

The more high profile an event, the more it suits terror groups to mount a desperate attack ' such as the one on Wednesday -- and gain maximum mileage. Fortunately, the loss of civilian life in the blaze has been nil. But the security establishment's loss of face is incalculable.

The attack was launched in Srinagar around 4 pm when two motorcycle-borne assailants forced their way into the Tourist Reception Centre, guns blazing.

In the battle that followed ' hardly 150m from where the bus is to be flagged off ' security forces used mortar rounds and it was during this phase that the building (in Reuters picture above) caught fire.

The complex also houses offices of the state road transport corporation, several other government departments, a branch of the State Bank of India and that of Indian Airlines.

As soon as the blaze started to spread, employees began jumping from the ground-floor windows. 'God! Please don't let anyone else see such a horrible day!' wailed a survivor.

Twenty-two passengers ' two others were in Baramulla in northern Kashmir at the time of the attack ' and around 40 employees were evacuated. The bus has the capacity to seat 29 but some have had second thoughts.

One of the militants was killed and a search was on for the other. Unconfirmed reports said one more could have been involved. 'I saw two gunmen with AK-47s running from one side of the building to another,' Aijaz Ahmed, a bank employee, said.

Thirteen ' mostly employees and security personnel ' were injured.

Two of the buses meant for the cross-border travel were just entering the transport yard when the attack occurred. One of the drivers, Ghulam Mohammad, said: 'I was trying to negotiate a turn when the firing started. We somehow managed to take the buses away.'

Within little more than half-an-hour, the yellowed, two-storey brick-and-timber building was destroyed. The passengers who are scheduled to come from Muzaffarabad were supposed to be received at the same building.

Officials said all the Muzaffarabad-bound passengers had been shifted to a hotel.

A combine of four militant groups that had threatened to turn the bus into a 'coffin' has owned up responsibility for the attack.

In the evening, the state government came up with a response to the coffin threat ' it decided to name the bus Kaarwan-e-Aaman (the caravan of peace).

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