Amid threats of violence and tears of joy, India and Pakistan began a historic bus service Thursday across the divided Himalayan province of Kashmir, reuniting relatives who had not seen each other for decades and boosting hopes for a lasting peace between the nuclear-armed rivals.
The first group of 31 passengers arrived from Pakistan's side of the province at 2 p.m., walking on foot across a 220-foot steel bridge, where they were mobbed by Indian officials and soldiers bearing gifts, sweets and garlands of marigolds. One of the Kashmiri passengers knelt to kiss the asphalt. Some wept.
About three hours later, 19 passengers from the Indian side of Kashmir crossed to Pakistan's end of the bridge, where they received a similar if slightly more restrained welcome. Dignitaries and soldiers from both countries mingled in the center of the span, smiling and shaking hands in an area where the two armies less than two years ago were pounding each other with artillery on a regular basis.
"I'm coming after 55 years," said Sharif Hussain Bukhari, a retired judge who traveled from his home in Pakistan's side of Kashmir to visit his childhood village of Kreeri, as well as a brother and other relatives, most of whom he had never met. Asked to describe his feelings, Bukhari replied simply, "I am on my own land."
The bus service establishes the first link between the two sides of the province in nearly 60 years and is the most tangible achievement to emerge from peace negotiations between India and Pakistan that began last year in January. But the bus route has been bitterly opposed by Islamic militants who want Kashmir to be reunited as an independent state or as part of Pakistan and are opposed to any territorial compromise with India.
Militants have issued death threats against those making the journey and on Thursday fired rifle grenades at one of the two buses traveling from Srinagar, on India's side of the province, to the Line of Control, the cease-fire line that divides Indian and Pakistani forces. The grenades exploded harmlessly.
The grenade attack came a day after gunmen assaulted a government complex in Srinagar where the bus passengers had been moved for their own safety. The two gunmen were killed in the attack, which wounded six people and set the building ablaze. None of the passengers was wounded, but five subsequently opted out of the trip.
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh traveled to Srinagar to flag off the first bus for Muzaffarabad, 113 miles to the west at the other end of the route in Pakistan-held territory. "The caravan of peace has started," Singh told the crowd of thousands at the cricket stadium where the bus journey began. "Nothing can stop it."
The mood in Pakistan was somewhat more subdued, in part because officials have been leery about such confidence-building measures in the absence of tangible progress toward a final settlement of the Kashmir issue, which they regard as the main bone of contention with India. Neither the president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, nor Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz attended the send-off of the buses in Muzaffarabad, the Associated Press reported.
The most joyful reaction was among Kashmiris, for whom the inauguration of the bus service represents the breaching of psychological and physical barriers in the Muslim majority province.