LAHORE Pakistan/WAGAH India (Reuters) - India and Pakistan solemnly lowered their national flags at a dusk military ceremony on their main land border crossing on Monday, a day after a suicide attack killed almost 60 people on the Pakistani side.
India’s home ministry had earlier said the daily flag-lowering ceremony would be suspended as a mark of respect for the dead - the first time the parade would have been called off since the two countries went to war in 1971.
But later Pakistani officials changed their mind, deciding to go ahead with the ritual to send a message to the militants.
Just before dusk, at least 2,000 women, men and children gathered at the parade ground on the border crossing, some chanting “Death to terrorists” and “Long live Pakistan”. On the Indian side, there were only a handful of spectators.
The colorful show, where border guards in elaborate uniforms goose-step, shake hands brusquely across the borderline and scowl aggressively at each other, proceeded as usual amid heightened security.
“Today’s ceremony proved that terrorists cannot lower the spirit of the nation by their cowardly activities,” Corps Commander Lahore Lt. Gen. Naveed Zaman said in televised remarks.
At least 57 people were killed and 110 wounded when the explosion ripped through a car park about 500 meters (yards) from Pakistan’s border gate just as hundreds of people left the daily performance.
At least two Pakistani Taliban splinter groups have claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it was revenge for the army’s military operation against insurgents in the tribal region of North Waziristan.
But, given Pakistan’s frosty relations with India, with which it has fought three wars, some commentators suggested the attack might have been plotted by elements trying to sabotage relations between the arch-rivals or hurt India. [ID:nL4N0ST3JP]
The flag-lowering ceremony is extremely popular on both sides, with crowds every day packing out bleachers set up on either side of the gates adorned with large, facing portraits of their founding fathers, Mahatma Gandhi on the Indian side and Mohammed Ali Jinnah on the Pakistani side.
The attack rattled people’s nerves in a region already beset by violence and insurgencies but despite reports that police had found more explosives in the area many people came with their families to see the first flag-lowering since the attack.
Anwar Shaikh, 45, a Lahore resident, came with his wife and two children.
“I came here yesterday after the tragedy,” he told Reuters. “Today, I came with my family to express solidarity with my country and the martyrs. We can give our lives to our country but would not surrender to terrorists.”
The last minute decision to hold the ritual came too late for many hopeful spectators on the Indian side.
“We had confirmed to several tourists that the event will not take place for the next three days. So Indians did not turn up. Very few Indians, mainly locals came to see,” said a senior Indian border security official.
Earlier in the day, Indian resident Shivaji Chouhan was sent back at a check point after traveling from the distant city of Pune to witness the show.
“We spent so much money and covered 2,000 km to see the ceremony. We are disappointed,” he said.
Reporting by Rupam Jain Nair; Writing by Frank Jack Daniel and Maria Golovnina; Editing by John Chalmers and Jeremy Laurence