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Pakistan, India Cross Kashmir Line

Pakistan and India opened a crossing on their disputed border yesterday to help earthquake survivors but the historic move was quickly beset by trouble when Pakistani villagers were turned back on their side by local police firing teargas.

Police also fired shots into the air as the protesters tried to approach the heavily militarized Line of Control, the de facto border that separates Pakistani and Indian Kashmir.

Some protesters shouted "Let people cross" and "What we want is freedom" and at least two men carrying children ran towards the border, apparently trying to cross to the Indian side, before they were stopped.

Shortly before the brief protest, Indian and Pakistani military officials opened the border in a largely symbolic gesture to help survivors of the October 8 earthquake that killed more than 73,000 people in Pakistan and about 1,300 in India.

The Line of Control has divided Kashmir since the neighbors fought their first war over the Muslim-majority Himalayan region shortly after independence from Britain in 1947. Families on different sides of the line when the war ended have remained split.

Some Kashmiri separatists, who want to see a united Kashmir independent of both Pakistan and India, have objected to the opening, saying it would lead to the line becoming a formal border, and the permanent division of Kashmir.

Last month, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf proposed opening the line on five points to help quake survivors. The nuclear-armed rivals agreed people would be allowed to cross to visit relatives and relief goods could flow both ways.

But Pakistani officials said only quake aid would be crossing the line yesterday as paperwork, which includes an exchange of lists of those wishing to travel and security checks, had delayed hoped-for family reunions. Applications take about 10 days to process. "We want to see our relatives. We don't have any other objective," said another protester, Abdul Rauf, who said his parents lived on the Indian side.

Very few onlookers turned out to watch the border opening on the Indian side, apparently because there are few villages in the area.

Barriers crumbling after 60 years

Earlier, military officials from the two sides shook hands across the line and an orange Indian truck carrying relief goods backed up to it while a Pakistani truck drove up in reverse from its side.

Men then began unloading sacks from the Indian truck into the Pakistani one. The supplies are part of a US$25 million earthquake aid package from India.

"This is a historical event. There have been physical and mental barriers for 60 years. Now the mental barriers are crumbling," said B.R. Sharma, a senior civil servant from the Indian side, before the protest.

Although the two sides had agreed to open five points on the line dividing Kashmir, the region worst hit by the earthquake, India said on Saturday only one of the five, in its Poonch district which was lightly touched by the quake, would open yesterday.

Both sides are nervous about the opening. The Pakistanis say they do not want the Indian military to see their defences while India is worried Muslim militants fighting its rule in Kashmir might try to slip in.

While of symbolic importance for the old enemies, opening the line is not expected to make a big difference to relief efforts.

The Pakistani side of the crossing which opened yesterday suffered heavier quake damage than the Indian side but it is accessible by road, meaning the injured had already been taken to hospital in Pakistani cities, and emergency aid distributed.

Pakistani villagers said they did not need Indian aid, they just wanted to see relatives on the other side.

"We don't need sugar, flour or rice or anything else. We just want to see our dear ones," said Sardar Abdul Hafiz.

While villagers in Titrinote said they did not need help, up to three million people have been made homeless by the quake in Pakistan and tens of thousands are without help high in the mountains. Aid officials warn that with winter fast approaching, time is running out.

(China Daily November 8, 2005)


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