SRINAGAR, India - Indian authorities have moved passengers due to take the first bus in decades between Indian and Pakistani Kashmir to a heavily guarded complex in Kashmir's main city, behind machinegun nests and razor wire.
Anti-Indian militants have told Kashmiri families, desperate to reunite, not to ride the first bus service on Thursday along a twisting mountain road, warning it will become their "coffin."
Thousands of Kashmiris on both sides of the border signed up for the first bus, but only 29 have been approved from the Indian side -- and so far only three tickets have been sold.
"After the latest militant threat, 10 passengers traveling in the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus have been shifted to the TRC," an official with India's Jammu and Kashmir state government told Reuters on Monday, referring to the main tourist center in the summer capital of Srinagar.
Another dozen or so passengers are being brought to Srinagar under tight security from the southern winter capital of Jammu.
Adding menace to their threat, the Islamic militants have published lists of the names and addresses of the first passengers to win seats on the service.
The bus, resuming for the first time since the first war between India and Pakistan over Kashmir in 1947, is seen as a key step in boosting a painfully slow and cautious peace process for the two countries, which have fought two of their wars over the region since 1947.
Police dressed in battle fatigues frisked people entering the Srinagar complex, just across the road from the government radio and television offices where a massive car bomb killed five people two years ago.
"Nobody is allowed to meet the passengers," a security official guarding the building told reporters from behind a metal barricade tipped with sharp spikes.
The homes of at least some Srinagar families due to travel on the bus were locked and deserted on Monday.
A SIGN OF CHANGE?
Earlier, Kashmiris planning to travel to Muzaffarabad, capital of Pakistani Kashmir, had dismissed the rebel threat.
But many Kashmiris are scared.
"My father feels scared now. He is desperate to meet his brother across (the frontier), but cannot decide now after new militant threats," said one anonymous Srinagar resident whose father is among the chosen 29.
The house of Fatima Bhat, due to travel to Muzaffarabad on Thursday to meet daughter Wazira Begum, was locked in central Srinagar. Her neighbors said she had gone into hiding after threats.
Many families of Kashmiris, ethnically and culturally different from most Indians and Pakistanis, have been separated since Britain partitioned the subcontinent into mainly Muslim Pakistan and predominantly Hindu India in 1947.
Pakistani tribesmen launched the first assault to take mainly Muslim Kashmir that same year. The Himalayan region, dubbed paradise on earth for its breathtaking landscapes, has been divided ever since and has been at the heart of half a century of tension between the nuclear-armed powers.
Indian authorities on Monday started issuing tickets for four buses being prepared for the journey. Each of them bears a logo with the words of a Kashmiri couplet: "I broke the sword and made sickles out of it."
Security is being stepped up along the highway on the Indian side and police in Indian Kashmir have detained nearly 50 people ahead of the bus service.
"Around 300 people have been put on close watch. They have been asked to report to police stations daily," a police official said.
Violence involving Muslim militants and soldiers has increased in Indian Kashmir in the run-up to the bus service.
Soldiers shot dead eight militants in separate gun battles at the weekend, while suspected guerrillas shot dead two activists of Kashmir's ruling People's Democratic Party and a civilian, police said.
India is erecting large billboards with the portraits of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf, the first such honor for any Pakistani leader in Indian Kashmir.
"To shorten the distances and to join the heart is the message from the messengers of friendship and peace," reads one.
Mon Apr 4, 2005 01:06 PM ET By Sheikh Mushtaq
© Reuters 2005