India, Pak Work To Repair Key Kashmir Bridge For Historic Bus Service
14 March 2005
Kaman Bridge: Indian and Pakistani officials are working night and day to repair this key Kashmir bridge ahead of the historic launch next month of a bus service between the two divided zones. The bridge, situated 118 kilometers (73 miles) west of the summer capital Srinagar, forms part of the Line of Control (LoC) - the de facto border splitting the state into Indian and Pakistani sectors. Kaman bridge is held in equal parts by the nuclear-armed rivals, who agreed last month to start a bus service from April 7 between Srinagar and Muzaffarabad, capital of the Pakistani zone - the first such link in nearly six decades. The move breathed new life into a faltering peace process and the bridge has become a symbol of hope. 'This is a great moment,' said Indian Kashmir chief minister Mufti Mohammed Sayeed, who visited Sunday. 'The walls of hate ... are finally crumbling and this bridge that was itself part of the dispute is now the epitome of change.' Indian administration official Khalid Bashir said coordinated work was going on throughout the night. 'Both sides are repairing the bridge on their respective sides on a war-footing,' he told reporters. 'Indian army officials have informed the chief minister that the repairs of the road and the bridge will be completed by March 31,' Bashir said. As Indian troops laboured on their side of the 60-metre (200 foot) bridge, Pakistani counterparts across the LoC were seen cutting into the soil to widen the road. 'I am optimistic the road will be ready on both sides well before the first bus rolls,' said an army officer, pointing to bulldozers working in the Pakistani sector. Civilians, mostly labourers waved at people near Kaman bridge as Sayeed cautiously stepped on to the structure, which has not been used for more than five decades. The road was closed in 1947 for vehicles, but people continued to cross it for a few more years before it was totally closed. 'Only a year ago nobody would believe this road would open,' said Sayeed. The area was a no man's land riddled with mines until just a few weeks ago. 'But I was very confident that the day would soon arrive when this dream of the people would be realised.' Sayeed termed the opening of the road as a 'great stride in the normalisation process. It will also strengthen the bonds between the people of the two countries.' His party has been demanding the reopening of the road since coming to power in late 2002. The chief minister said the bus would run once a fortnight. 'From the enthusiasm of the people I can see private vehicles and a daily bus service on this road in the coming years,' he added. Lieutenant General Hari Prasad, who heads the Indian army's northern command, told reporters the bus service would be protected from militant attacks and confirmed the area had been cleared of landmines. 'The entire area has been demined. It is now safe. There will be no compromise on security,' said Prasad. 'It is one of the biggest confidence building measures between India and Pakistan. Initially mid-size buses will operate. We will complete all the work on the infrastructure to make the service a success,' he added. The new bus service will ease the plight of thousands of families separated by the LoC. Passports will not be required to take the bus, but permits will be issued by Kashmiri officials.