India, Pakistan open frontier for civilians

Sunday, November 20, 2005

TEETHWAL, India -- For the first time in 58 years, Indians legally walked into Pakistan on Saturday after a landmark decision to open divided Kashmir's heavily militarized border. The temporary measure -- aimed at reuniting families after the earthquake that devastated the region -- may go a long way toward easing tensions between the two nuclear rivals.

The 23 Indians who crossed over hoped to visit relatives they have not seen since the frontier was drawn after the 1948 war between the neighboring countries, leaving most of Kashmir with India and a smaller part with Pakistan.

The region, claimed by both countries in its entirety, is at the core of the enmity between the two nuclear-armed rivals, who have fought three wars since independence from Britain in 1947.

On Saturday, 62-year-old Khair-ul-Nissa Shah was among those to cross a new footbridge built over the Kishanganga River to Pakistani Kashmir. She said she was traveling there for the first time to see her two sisters, who moved to the village of Parnai after marrying men there 40 years ago.

"I will see who has survived and who has died. There has been no news from them. It will be good to see my sisters," she said.

Lingering fear and suspicion repeatedly delayed the opening of the frontier to civilian traffic, although both countries have exchanged relief material during the past month.

Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf said Saturday the Oct. 8 quake, which killed 86,000 people in Pakistan and another 1,350 in India, could serve as "an opportunity of a lifetime" for the countries to end hostilities.

Even before the quake, however, tensions have eased somewhat in recent years.

In 2003, the two agreed to talks on resuming air links and restoring the Samjhotha Express train from India to Pakistan's eastern city of Lahore. Pakistan accepted resumption of sporting events with India and agreed to re-establish shipping service severed in the 1960s between Bombay and Karachi.

This August, the rival nations agreed to set up a hot line to tell each other about upcoming missile tests, a practice that has been going on for some time.

Until the quake, however, India and Pakistan had made few moves toward resolving the Kashmir dispute. Afterward, a new thaw began when the Indian prime minister called Musharraf and offered humanitarian help. Musharraf made a similar offer for the victims of the quake in the Indian portion of Kashmir.

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