PM opens rail link, Sonia says Kashmiris want peace

Banihal (Jammu and Kashmir), June 26 (IANS) Prime Minister Manmohan Singh Wednesday opened India's longest rail tunnel in Kashmir to provide a key link between the Kashmir Valley and Jammu region, even as UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi said that Kashmiris were fed up with violence.

Hours before ending a two-day visit to the troubled state, Manmohan Singh rode with school children on the inaugural run of the train through the 10.96-km-long tunnel to link Qazigund town in the valley with Banihal in Jammu region.

The prime minister warmly shook hands with the overjoyed children and sat with them as the diesel train made its way from Banihal through the winding tunnel, an engineering marvel that took seven years to come up in a mountainous region.

Chief Minister Omar Abdullah and central Health Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad, a former chief minister, were with the prime minister in the train.

After reaching Qazigund, Manmohan Singh went back on the same train to Banihal where he told a meeting attended by hundreds of people that the new train link will boost Jammu and Kashmir's economic development.

"Today, we are dedicating a marvellous and wonderful feat of engineering crafted across the Himalayas," he said. "This is not just an engineering marvel, but an all weather link between the valley and the rest of Jammu and Kashmir.

"This will usher in a new era in the development of the state, providing welfare and employment to the people here."

The rail bridge between Udhampur and Banihal -- the train runs through the Pir Panjal mountain range -- is the highest in the world.

The tunnel was built at a cost of Rs.1,300 crores. An eight-coach train will operate on the route from June 27. The link cuts the distance between Qazigund and Banihal towns by 18 km.

"I want to assure the people of Jammu and Kashmir that (my) government will extend all possible support for the development of the people here," the prime minister said.

As he spoke in Urdu, Manmohan Singh struck a chord with the people at the rally. He was cheered each time he spoke about ushering development in the state.

Congress president Sonia Gandhi told the rally that the people of Jammu and Kashmir "are fed up with violence. They want peace and development...

"I know very well that painful incidents happen here occasionally but our democracy has enough scope to sort out issues through dialogue and negotiations."

The inauguration of the rail link and the public rally marked the end of their visit to Jammu and Kashmir during which Manmohan Singh laid the foundation of a hydro-electric project on the Chenab river in Jammu region and took part in two events in the Kashmir Valley.

Srinagar, the summer capital of the state and the urban hub of the separatist campaign, remained tense for a second straight day Wednesday as security forces enforced restrictions for VVIP protection.

Motorists mostly stayed off the roads while people preferred to stay indoors. And although Srinagar was calm, militants shot dead a businessman turned politician in the northern town of Sopore Wednesday.

Kifayat Hussain was killed from close range when he was talking on the telephone near a petrol pump. He had contested the 2008 assembly elections from Sopore.

On Monday, two guerrillas sneaked out of a lane to carry out a deadly ambush of an army convoy in Srinagar, killing eight soldiers and wounding over a dozen.

On Tuesday, Manmohan Singh and Gandhi also called on the wounded soldiers at a military base. The prime minister wished them speedy recovery.

Later, he told a meeting that terrorism would never succeed in Kashmir and that India was united in the war against terror.

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