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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

'Caravan of Peace' Unites Kashmir

SRINAGAR, India / MUZAFFARABAD, Pakistan -- To the sound of cheers and rolling thunder, garlanded buses set off to take passengers across Kashmir's cease-fire line Thursday in an emotive but risky boost for South Asian peace.

"The caravan of peace has started," Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told thousands of Kashmiris who braving freezing drizzle at a heavily guarded stadium in Srinagar, the heart and soul of Indian Kashmir. "Nothing can stop it."

Islamic rebels tried, throwing a grenade and firing at one of the Pakistan-bound buses soon after it left. But no one was hurt, the bus was not hit and did not stop.

Guerrillas, who have threatened to turn the buses -- the first in almost 60 years -- into rolling coffins, attacked a fortified government complex housing passengers Wednesday. They torched the complex. But the passengers escaped and all 24 scheduled passengers, many of them elderly, boarded Thursday as the wreckage of the complex still smoldered.

In commemorative green caps, they waved as the two white-and-green buses draped with marigolds pulled out through the mud.

In Muzaffarabad, capital of Pakistani Kashmir and 170 kilometers away by road from Srinagar, well-wishers threw rose petals as garlanded passengers boarded a green-and-yellow bus for the "Peace Bridge" -- newly repainted a neutral white -- that crosses the militarized cease-fire line dividing Kashmir.

As they trudge across the metal bridge to pass through immigration and transfer to Indian buses, a large billboard will greet them: "No religion teaches animosity towards each other."

Security in Indian Kashmir was the tightest for years, including during the 2002 state election. Threats by rebels have created unease but also defiance among Kashmiris determined to see the service succeed and families reunited.

"A door has opened," said Singh, speaking behind bulletproof glass. "Pakistan and especially President General Pervez Musharraf have helped us open this door and without their support, the door would not have opened."

"This is the beginning of a new phase in the continuing friendship with Pakistan."

Singh was speaking at the same stadium where his predecessor, Atal Behari Vajpayee, kicked off the peace process two years ago this month, extending "the hand of friendship" to Pakistan after near war in 2002.

"The is the happiest day of my life," said Abdul Rahim, 55, of Salamabad, a town on the border. "My neighbor is traveling from across [the border]. I will be seeing him for the first time since we were children playing together."