NEW DELHI (AP)
Indian investigators searched Wednesday for two men who were allowed to jump off a Pakistan-bound train shortly before it erupted into flames, killing 68 people, a police officer said.
The search came as the foreign ministers of India and Pakistan prepared to meet Wednesday to press ahead with peace talks.
The attack on the train made peace negotiations between the longtime rivals even more urgent, Pakistan Foreign Minister Khursheed Kasuri said after arriving in the Indian capital.
Police released sketches of the two suspects on Tuesday.
“Acting on clues, we have sent police teams to different towns to nab the suspects,” said Bharti Arora, a senior Haryana state railway police official.
The suspects, whose identities were not known, boarded the train when it left New Delhi on Sunday but quickly began arguing with the conductor, insisting they were on the wrong train. They were allowed to jump from the train as it slowed down about 15 minutes before two crude bombs detonated, setting off the fires, Sharad Kumar, a senior police official, said Tuesday.
The fire destroyed two coaches on the Samjhauta Express, one of the most visible symbols of the India-Pakistan peace process, about an hour after the train left New Delhi. Most of the victims were Pakistani.
The train goes to the border town of Atari without stopping, and the revelation that two were allowed off highlighted what most passengers already know: Security on the train and at stations is cursory, at best. Baggage is not searched or scanned, identities are seldom checked and there is often little security presence, though stations have been swarmed by police since the bombing.
The Indian rail system _ one of the largest in the world, with 11,000 trains a day serving 80 million people _ is simply too big to protect fully, many experts believe.
“Providing security for India’s vast railway network would be close to impossible,” said Ajit Doval, former director of India’s Intelligence Bureau, which oversees internal security. “There are so many thousand railway stations and hundreds of trains, it would be impracticable to ensure security at each and every one.”
In another sign of lax security, Kumar said 13 passengers made it to the Pakistani side of Atari without passports. The train continued its run to the border after the two damaged coaches were pushed off to a siding.
Tickets for the train are not supposed to be issued without passengers showing passports. Kumar said the two officials who issued the tickets have been suspended.
Railway Minister Lalu Prasad acknowledged the security failings hours after the blast when he told reporters: “Though there are metal detectors, we don’t have the equipment to check what is inside the luggage. We can’t deny that.”
Crimes _ some quite dramatic _ are common on India’s railways. On Monday, 17 passengers traveling through north India were stripped of their cash and valuables after being given cookies laced with drugs that knocked them unconscious, the Press Trust of India news agency reported.
Officials said the Sunday night train attack appeared intended to disrupt India-Pakistan relations, but instead leaders of both nations said they would press ahead with peace talks.
“The incident only adds to urgency for us to cooperate,” Pakistani Foreign Minister Khursheed Kasuri said while visiting a New Delhi hospital where nearly a dozen Pakistanis were being treated for burns.
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who also met victims at the hospital Tuesday, said the best way to honor them was “to remain steadfast in our commitment to normalized relations between our two countries.”
New Delhi’s reaction was in stark contrast to the aftermath of last summer’s attacks on Mumbai’s commuter trains, which killed more than 200 people. Indian officials at the time accused Pakistan-linked militant groups and sometimes Pakistan’s intelligence agency.
Kumar, the police official, said Sunday’s attack was “the handiwork of a militant outfit, but we don’t know which group is involved.”
Authorities say two suitcases packed with crude unexploded bombs and bottles of gasoline were found in undamaged train cars.
As on most Indian trains, the windows of many cars are barred for security reasons, sealing in many victims. Witnesses said some victims remained trapped in the flaming carriages for up to 30 minutes, struggling futilely to escape.
The India-Pakistan train link was suspended after a 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament that India blamed on Pakistan and which nearly led to a war between the two countries. But relations between the nuclear-armed neighbors have improved, and the train service restarted in 2004.
Their enmity focuses on Kashmir, a largely Muslim Himalayan region divided between them but claimed by both.
Associated Press writer Nirmala George contributed to this report.