India, Pakistan lower flag at border ceremony day after bomb attack

Every day, thousands of Indians and Pakistanis flock to watch the elaborate show where border security officials kick their feet high and grimace in mock aggression in a peacock-like display of patriotism.

India, Pakistan lower flag at border ceremony day after bomb attack

World Bulletin/News Desk

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 colourful 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 metres (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.

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 travelling 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.

"Spy agencies averted more deaths"

Indian and Pakistani intelligence agencies both picked up plans for an imminent strike on their Wagah land border ahead of the blast, and heightened security possibly averted a more devastating attack.

Pakistani police on Monday said they had recovered a "huge" cache of weapons and explosives near the border.

Pakistani and Indian agents, who are arch-rivals and do not share intelligence, gave conflicting accounts of whether the bomber's true intention was to cause casualties on the Indian side of the border and stir up tensions between the nuclear-armed nations.

"It appears the bomber wanted to target ground zero where Pakistan and India border officials stand together to perform the flag ceremony but he could not enter due to tight security on the last gate," a Pakistani intelligence official told Reuters.

"Had he managed to reach the place, there would have been the worst scenario at both sides."

If successful, such an attack would likely have severely tested ties between India and Pakistan, already frayed after weeks of shelling further along the border killed 17 people in October.

Another source said a second suicide vest had been found in a field near the explosion site, suggesting there might have been another bomber.

"The target - the border facility that symbolises trade and interaction between India and Pakistan - is a tempting one for extremist Pakistani groups that want conflict with India and oppose any detente or cooperation with New Delhi," said Bruce Riedel of the Brookings Institution, a former adviser on South Asia to U.S. presidents.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi condemned Sunday's attack as a "dastardly act".

"My condolences to the families of the deceased. Prayers with the injured," he said on Twitter.

An official from India's foreign intelligence service, the Research and Analysis Wing, said the blast at the border was squarely aimed at Pakistan's security forces, a version in line with several Pakistani Taliban splinter groups that claimed the attack as revenge for an army offensive against militants near the Afghanistan border.

"It is reprisal attacks against the establishment there. It's been a long time coming, ever since the TTP (the Pakistan Taliban) has been under pressure," he said.

An Indian official said the home ministry received two intelligence warnings in mid-October of possible attacks along the border or at the nearby Golden Temple in the city of Amritsar, the most sacred site for Sikhs.

"Based on these reports the BSF was ordered to upgrade security and a red alert was also issued," said a senior home ministry official. The official declined to be named because he was not authorised to speak to media.

"Warnings from intelligence departments are a regular feature but this time we had a clear input that the retreat and Golden Temple could be prime targets. This message was conveyed to the local police."

Jagdeep Singh, a superintendent of police in Amritsar who is involved with security around the Wagah border, told Reuters he had installed checkpoints at two spots 3 km (two miles) away from the flag ceremony venue after the warnings in October.


Last Mod: 03 Kasım 2014, 15:27
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