Pakistan, India Begin Second Cross-border Bus Service In Disputed Kashmir
20 June 2006
Chakan Da Bagh: Hundreds of people cheered and waved flags on the Pakistani and Indian sides of war-divided Kashmir on Tuesday as authorities celebrated the start of a second bus service linking the two halves of the Himalayan region. The bus service, to initially run once every two weeks, delivered 74 people across one of the world's most heavily militarized frontiers. It marks a positive step in strained relations between the nuclear-armed South Asian neighbors, which have fought two wars over Kashmir. 'We are sure that this bus service is bound to strengthen relationships between our two countries,' Sonia Gandhi, president of India's ruling Congress party, said as she handed out gifts to the 45 passengers on the Indian side heading into Pakistan. Buses delivered people to gates at both sides of the border crossing town of Chakan-Da-Bagh, which is split by the Line of Control separating Kashmir into Pakistani and Indian halves. Passengers then got off and walked several meters (yards) to the other side to board waiting buses to continue their journeys. The 10-kilometer (six-mile) route links the Indian border town of Punch to the Rawalakhot district town of Titrinote in Pakistan. At least 15 passengers returning to India were Pakistanis who had crossed into India on foot after the devastating Oct. 8 earthquake that hit the region. On the Pakistani side, hundreds of villagers gathered to watch the new service begin or see relatives cross to the Indian side. Twenty-nine Pakistanis crossed into Indian- controlled Kashmir, including Judge Qazi Mohammed Bashir, who was traveling there for the first time in 26 years to visit his two brothers. 'I pray to God that the restrictions end and buses travel daily,' said Bashir, 56, from the Pakistani-controlled Kashmir city of Kotli. 'I am very happy.' Maj. Gen. Zaheerul Islam, commander of Pakistani troops in the area, and his Indian counterpart, Maj. Gen. S.R. Ray, shook hands and exchanged flowers and sweets at the frontier before the passengers crossed. Nearby, a huge banner said 'Welcome to our brothers from occupied Kashmir' _ a phrase Pakistan uses to describe Indian-controlled Kashmir. A sign on the Indian side read: 'Religion does not teach hatred.' India accuses Pakistan of backing Muslim militants fighting to wrest Kashmir from Indian rule, a charge Pakistan denies. India and Pakistan have fought three wars since splitting into two countries when gaining independence from Britain in 1947. Relations between the two have improved since they began a peace process in January 2004, which has still made little progress on the fate of Kashmir, which India and Pakistan both claim in its entirety. Gandhi, who was joined by Indian Defense Minister Pranab Mukherjee, also called for the resumption of regional trade to boost the Indian-Pakistani peace process. 'This is like breaking a second big wall, providing a great opening for the people of the two sides,' Gandhi said. She said India's government is willing to settle the decades-old Kashmir dispute, but 'the dialogue has to be within the parameters of the Indian Constitution' _ a reference rejecting Pakistan's claim to Kashmir. Sardar Sikandar Hayat Khan, prime minister of Pakistani-controlled Kashmir, said he was grateful to India and Pakistan for helping Kashmiris see their relatives on either side of the frontier. 'But the bus service is not the real goal,' Khan said. 'The goal is the freedom of Kashmir.'