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Pakistani train takes new hopes to India
( 2004-01-15 15:24) (Agencies)

A Pakistani train crossed into India Thursday for the first time in two years, the most dramatic sign of rapprochement between India and Pakistan since ground-breaking talks between their leaders this month.

The Samjhota, or "Understanding," Express, freshly painted in green and yellow and festooned with bunting, crossed the border at Wagah near Lahore heading for the Indian station at Atari, one km (half a mile) away.

Resumption of the train service follows the recent meeting between Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf at which the nuclear-armed rivals agreed to resume stalled peace talks next month.

Security was tight given fears of attack by militants opposed to peace. Dozens of soldiers stood guard and sniffer dogs checked passengers and their luggage for explosives or narcotics.

The driver of the locomotive, wearing a garland of red roses, waved from his cab as the train crossed the border. Passengers will change trains in Atari for onward travel into India, while the Pakistani train will pick up travelers heading to Pakistan.

The train is capable of carrying 800 passengers, but only 76 tickets were sold for Thursday's journey, given continuing visa restrictions. The passengers were 56 Pakistanis and 20 Indians.

They hailed the resumption of the train service as a sign of peace between their countries, which went close to a fourth war in 2002 after India accused Pakistani-based militants of a bloody attack on its parliament in December 2001.

Transport links were severed after that attack and the two countries staged a massive build-up of forces along their border while violence worsened in the divided Himalayan territory of Kashmir, the main cause of their long-running rivalry.


India and Pakistan have already resumed flights and bus services since Vajpayee, now nearing 80, announced last April that he would make a final bid for peace with Pakistan in his lifetime. But the train service will be the most welcome return to normal relations for most ordinary people as it is the most economical means of travel between the countries.

Thousands of families were split up by the 1947 partition of the sub-continent that created Pakistan and India at the time of independence from Britain. Such families had relied on the train to visit relatives.

The passengers each paid 240 rupees ($4) for the journey, which compares with 940 rupees ($16) for a one-way bus ticket to Delhi or 8,500 rupees ($148) for an air ticket. The train will operate twice a week, on Mondays and Thursdays.

Ramesh Lal, a member of Pakistan's national assembly, was traveling to India with his family.

"The resumption of train service is a real service for the public," he said. "Rich people can travel by air; poor people can only travel by train. The train service will also facilitate better relations between the two countries.

"I am going there for peace," Lal added.

Eighty-year-old Mohammad Hussain Khan was returning to Bombay after visiting his birthplace in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province for the first time since 1947.

"We are all brothers; we are all human beings," he said. "If we live together, it's better for all of us. Both the countries will progress if they patch things up. It's better for both Musharraf and Vajpayee to come to terms with each other."

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