Kashmir's first train flagged off amid strike

Sat Oct 11, 2008 3:04am EDT
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By Sheikh Mushtaq

SRINAGAR, India (Reuters) - Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Saturday flagged off the first train service in Kashmir, where shops, schools and offices were shut in response to a strike call by separatists protesting his visit.

The train service in the Valley will eventually cover 117 km (73 miles) between Baramulla in the north and Qazigund in south Kashmir, ringed by conifer forests and snow-peaked mountains.

For now, only a 66-km stretch is operational, officials said.

In large newspaper advertisements on Saturday, Indian Railways said of the 20-billion rupee project ($412 million): "A Himalayan task meets with success," describing it as a "vital link in national integration."

Hundreds of workers have braved harsh weather conditions and militant attacks for about eight years to lay bridges and tracks across the mountainous region. An engineer and his brother were kidnapped by militants in 2005 and later killed.

New Delhi says the train service is aimed at bringing development to the remote areas of the strife-torn region.

"However, connecting the Kashmir Valley with the rest of India still remains a distant dream," said Abdul Wahid, an engineer on the project.

Roads were deserted except for security patrols on Saturday in Srinagar, Kashmir's summer capital, a day after at least two people were killed and about 75 wounded when police fired bullets and teargas shells to disperse Muslim demonstrators.   Continued...

<p>An Indian policeman stands guard during the flag off ceremony of Kashmir's first ever-train by Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in Srinagar October 11, 2008. Singh on Saturday flagged off the first ever train service in Kashmir where shops and businesses remained closed in response to a strike call by separatists to protest against the premier's visit to the Himalayan region. REUTERS/Fayaz Kabli</p>