Two buses headed on Thursday from India's portion of divided Kashmir towards the Pakistani side with nearly two dozen passengers aboard, in a symbolic step towards peace in a region riven by violence.

Another bus carrying 30 people also left Muzaffarabad, the capital of the Himalayan territory's Pakistani zone, but was nearly an hour late because of a drawn-out launch ceremony.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had waved a blue flag to mark the start of the service, which he described as "a caravan of peace", before seeing off the passengers.

Peace caravan

"The caravan of peace is now on its way, no one can stop it," Singh said at a public rally in Srinagar, the capital of India's Jammu-Kashmir state.

Singh praised Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf for helping Kashmiris realise their dream of uniting divided families.

Indian media said security forces
prevented attacks on a bus

"The new climate will help India and Pakistan to settle their disputes peacefully," he said.

Sonia Gandhi, head of India's ruling Congress party, also greeted the Kashmiris in Srinagar before they boarded.

"The peace process can't be derailed," she said.

On his turn, the Pakistani sector's Prime Minister Sikandar Hayat Khan flagged off the bus in front of about 2000 people and said: "The start of the bus service is a historic step."

Security plea

Khan asked India to ensure security for the travellers.

"Our brave people are going to Srinagar despite the attack there, and I ask the Indian government to provide protection to our people," he said in his speech at a ceremony in Muzaffarabad, capital of Pakistan-controlled Kashmir.

"The start of the bus service is a historic step"

Sikandar Hayat,
Pakistan-sector Kashmir's Prime Minister

The buses from either side of the divided Kashmir headed to the heavily militarised frontier amid reports of separatists' attempts to attack them.

Indian television channels said fighters tried to attack a bus carrying passengers from Indian Kashmir to Pakistani Kashmir on Thursday, but were stopped by security forces and no passengers were hurt.

At least four television channels reported firing, and some  said a grenade had been thrown at one of the buses crossing towards Pakistan, near Singhpura in Indian-administered Kashmir.

 

But the NDTV news channel said the authorities had told them it was a case of accidental fire, without elaborating.

Tight security

The buses were surrounded by tight security after suspected separatists on Wednesday stormed a government compound where passengers selected for the initial trips were staying in Srinagar, the capital of Indian-administered Kashmir.

"The new climate will help India and Pakistan to settle their disputes peacefully"

Manmohan Singh,
Indian Prime Minister

Six people were injured, but the passengers escaped unharmed.

The bus service has been shut down for six decades in the conflict between India and Pakistan over the Himalayan region, but the two nuclear armed rivals decided in February to restart the service as part of their recent peace process.

More than a dozen Pakistan-based armed groups have been fighting for Kashmir's independence from India or its merger with Pakistan since 1989.

At least 66,000 people, mostly civilians, have been killed in the conflict.

Kashmir, the only majority Muslim state in largely Hindu India, is claimed in its entirety by both India and Pakistan, and has been at the root of two of their three wars.