Quake: India, Pakistan start talks on opening border

Arch-rivals India and Pakistan started talks on Saturday on an unprecedented opening of their disputed Kashmir border to help the relief effort for victims of the massive earthquake believed to have killed up to 80 000 people, officials said on Saturday.

Foreign ministry officials were meeting in Islamabad to discuss whether to allow Kashmiris to cross the heavily militarised Line of Control, the ceasefire line that divides the Himalayan region that the South Asian rivals have fought two wars over. A joint statement was expected later on Saturday after the talks.

Since Pakistan’s President General Pervez Musharraf suggested allowing Kashmiris to help each other recover from the October 8 quake, both governments have shown a willingness to open the border, but have failed to iron out differences in their proposals over how to do it—reflecting enduring suspicions between them.

The 7,6-magnitude temblor killed about 78 000 people in Pakistan, most of them in the Pakistan-controlled portion of Kashmir. More than 1 300 people died on the Indian side.
An estimated 3,3-million others were left homeless and fears for their lives are growing as winter closes in.

The latest in hundreds of aftershocks struck early on Saturday, with a magnitude of 5,5 and centred in the quake zone, the United States Geological Survey reported on its website. There were no immediate reports of damage or injuries.

Optimism

The head of the Indian delegation, Dilip Sinha, told reporters on arriving in Pakistan late on Friday that the atmosphere between Pakistan and India was positive and that “we hope to have useful talks”.

Pakistan’s foreign ministry spokesperson Tasnim Aslam also expressed optimism.

“Pakistan and India can reach an agreement after Saturday’s talks for opening the Line of Control for Kashmiris so that they can meet with their relatives and friends without facing procedural difficulties,” she said.

Crossing the land border in Kashmir was forbidden for 58 years until Pakistan and India agreed to a twice-monthly bus service earlier this year, one of the most tangible results so far of a two-year peace process to bury their history of acrimony and settle their competing claims to Kashmir.

Since the quake, India has delivered tons of supplies to Pakistan, and on Wednesday offered $25-million to a faltering United Nations appeal for funds for the emergency relief effort.

India is setting up three relief camps on its side of the border where Pakistani quake victims could get medical help, food and relief supplies, but Pakistan says it wants to open up five crossing points, and would be willing to let Kashmiris from the Indian side cross to its side.

Opening the frontier is a particularly sensitive issue for India because of a 16-year Islamic insurgency in its part of Kashmir by militants seeking independence or the region’s merger with Pakistan.

The talks could yet bog down over issues including what kind of documentation people would need to cross the border.

Aid alarm

They take place as alarm rises about the aid effort. The UN is warning that its helicopters ferrying desperately needed food, tents and medicine will be grounded within a week unless donors make good on pledges of hundreds of millions of dollars.

Jan Vandemoortele, the UN’s humanitarian coordinator in Pakistan, said on Friday that opening the Kashmir border could help the relief effort—if not solve the logistical challenges posed by the formidable terrain.

Winter is expected within weeks, endangering survivors who lack shelter and a dependable food supply. Pakistani meteorologists are forecasting a much harsher than normal winter in the high Himalayan mountains.

Mohammed Hanif at the Pakistan Meteorological Department said it was expecting 5,52m of snow in the region this winter, compared with 3m during a normal winter.

Average temperatures would also be a few degrees below normal, at times dipping as low as minus 20 Celsius, he said.

The official death toll from the quake in Pakistan rose on Friday to 56 000, but central government figures have consistently lagged behind those of local officials, which put Pakistan’s toll at about 78 000. Another 1 350 people died in Indian-held Kashmir.—Sapa-AP

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