DEWANA, India, (AP) – A pair of explosions on a train headed for Pakistan set off a fire that killed at least 66 people, some of whom became trapped when a train door was fused shut by the heat of the flames. Officials said the attack was aimed at disrupting improving relations between the rivals.
The explosions and fire struck just before midnight Sunday, a day before peace talks between India and Pakistan.
The fire swept through two cars just before the Samjhauta Express reached the station in the village of Dewana, about 50 miles north of New Delhi. As on most Indian trains, the windows of many cars are barred for security reasons.
Rajinder Prasad, a laborer who lives near the site of the attack, raced with his neighbors to the scene, scooping up water from a reservoir and throwing it on the flames, which rose high above the carriages.
“We couldn’t save anyone,” he said. “They were screaming inside, but no one could get out.” Within minutes, he said, the screams were drowned out by the roaring flames.
Bharti Arora, superintendent of the Haryana state railway police, put the death toll at 66 but authorities warned it could rise.
“From the less damaged coach, some people were seen jumping out with their bodies on fire,” Arora said.
At least 30 passengers were hospitalized in the nearby town of Panipat, though they were later moved to larger medical facilities, officials said. A dozen critically injured people were brought to New Delhi’s Safdarjung Hospital, a hospital statement said.
Dozens of families converged on the Panipat hospital, which was turned into a makeshift morgue. Nasruddin, 58, who like many in the region goes by just one name, traveled up from New Delhi to look for his sister in-law, Skeena, who was on the train — but he could only identify her by her possessions.
“The police have shown us the charred passport and the money she was carrying and also some burned bits of her clothes,” he said.
Outside, police set up a desk next to a stack of makeshift wooden coffins where worried relatives could sift through recovered documents. Piles of burned, sodden Pakistani passports and currency indicated the nationality of most of the victims.
Authorities said two suitcases packed with unexploded crude bombs and bottles of gasoline were found in cars not hit in the attack, leading them to suspect the fire was set off by identical explosive devices. V.N. Mathur, general manager of the Northern Railway, confirmed that there had been two explosions.
India’s junior home Minster, Sriprakash Jaiswal, said the homemade bombs were not powerful, and were simply intended to start a fire on the train, one day before Pakistani Foreign Minister Khursheed Kasuri was to arrive in New Delhi for talks on the ongoing peace process.
“This is an act of sabotage,” Railway Minister Laloo Prasad told reporters in Patna, India. “This is an attempt to derail the improving relationship between India and Pakistan.”
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh expressed anguish and grief at the loss of lives and said that “the culprits will be caught,” a brief statement by his office said.
Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf said leaders on both sides of the border should move forward with efforts to secure peace.
“We will not allow elements which want to sabotage the ongoing peace process and succeed in their nefarious designs,” he was quoted as saying by state-run Associated Press of Pakistan.
There were just over 600 people on board the train, railway officials said, though it was unclear how many were traveling in the burning coaches.
The train was traveling from New Delhi to Atari, the last railroad station before the border with Pakistan. At Atari, passengers change trains in a special station, switching to a Pakistani train that takes them to the Pakistani city of Lahore.
Within hours of the fire, authorities detached the burned cars and the rest of the train left for the India-Pakistan border.
The train links are one of the most visible results of the peace process under way between nuclear-armed rivals India and Pakistan, and one of the easiest ways to travel across the heavily militarized border.
Relations between the two countries have warmed in recent years, though they nearly went to war following a 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament that India blamed on Pakistan. The two now hold talks regularly.
The enmity between India and Pakistan centers on Kashmir, a largely Muslim Himalayan region divided between the two countries but claimed in its entirety by both.
More than a dozen militant groups — most based in Pakistan — have been fighting in Indian Kashmir for nearly two decades, seeking independence for the region or its merger with predominantly Islamic Pakistan. More than 68,000 people, most of them civilians, have died in the violence.
Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Tasnim Aslam said there were “all kinds of terrorists” who may have been behind the attack but said it was too early to speculate about the possible motive.
“We expect the Indian authorities to conduct a full investigation and punish those responsible for this heinous act of terrorism,” she said.
Monday’s blaze revived memories of the train bombings on Mumbai’s commuter rail lines last July that killed more than 200 people.
Police say Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, or Army of the Pure, a Pakistan-based Islamic militant group, as well as the Students’ Islamic Movement of India, or SIMI, a banned group based in northern India, were behind those blasts. Officials also have alleged that Pakistani intelligence was involved in the attacks, but Pakistan repeatedly has denied the accusation.
In 2002, Hindu-Muslim riots broke out after a train fire killed 60 Hindus returning from a religious pilgrimage. Muslims were blamed for the fire in the western state of Gujarat, and more than 1,000 people, most of them Muslim, were killed by Hindu mobs.
About 84 percent of India’s more than 1 billion people are Hindu, and Muslims account for about 14 percent.