Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Apples and onions cross frontier in disputed Kashmir (IHT)

Tuesday, October 21, 2008
By Aftab Borka
Trucks loaded with apples, onions and nuts crossed the frontier in divided Kashmir for the first time in decades Tuesday as nuclear-armed India and Pakistan opened a trade link aimed at easing tension.
The decision, taken only last month, to allow limited trade across the front line in Kashmir symbolises attempts to solve a bitter dispute over the Himalayan region by creating "soft borders" allowing the free movement of goods and people.
"I'm quite confident that this beginning will lead us to proper and regular trade and commerce," Sardar Attique Ahmed Khan, prime minister of Pakistani Kashmir, told reporters.
But Khan cautioned against hopes the opening of trade across an old cease-fire line and the de facto border, known as the Line of Control (LOC), would lead to a quick solution of the more than 60-year dispute over Muslim-majority Kashmir.
"All these steps, cross-LOC trade, communication, people-to-people contacts, talks, all these things slowly and gradually they are most generally contributing factors towards the ultimate resolution," Khan said.
"But no high hopes should be attached, no wild wishes should be attached to only the one event of today. But this is a great success," he said.
Indian Kashmir's governor, N.N. Vohra, said the trade link was a major step in a slow-moving peace process: "Today is a historic day ... The trade volume will increase."
The South Asian neighbours, who claim Kashmir in full but rule in parts, have fought two wars over the region and were on the verge of a third in 2002 before pulling back from the brink.
Tuesday, white doves of peace were released as 14 Pakistani trucks bedecked with the national flag crossed a bridge into Indian Kashmir carrying rice, onions and dried fruit.
Schoolchildren chanted "Long Live Pakistan" and "Kashmir will become a part of Pakistan" as a brass band played patriotic music.
Indian trucks garlanded with marigolds and banners reading "long live cross-border trade" set off the other way loaded with apples, honey and nuts.
"I'm delighted, it's a dream come true," said 35-year-old lorry driver Gulam Hassan Baba.
It was the first time vehicles had been allowed across the cease-fire line and the newly constructed Aman Setu, or Peace Bridge, since a 1948 war.
The opening of trade in Kashmir is the latest in a series of tentative peace moves that have done little to resolve their central territorial dispute, which has for decades hobbled regular trade across their international border further south.
But it does go some way towards meeting one of the demands of separatist groups in Indian Kashmir, who have been leading months of anti-India protests, some of the biggest in years.
India has moved slowly on opening up Kashmir's borders, believing that they could boost separatist militant attacks on Indian forces from bases in Pakistan. Militants have been battling security forces in Indian Kashmir since 1989.
A bus service connecting Srinagar, Indian Kashmir's summer capital, and Muzaffarabad, capital of Pakistani Kashmir, was launched in 2005, one of many confidence-building measures undertaken since the two sides began a peace process in 2004.
But because of elaborate security checks, suffocating bureaucracy and mistrust, only 9,000 passengers have travelled between the two sides of Kashmir on the "peace bus" service.
For the time being, trade will take place just once a week, with a limited list of goods allowed. Khuwaja Farooq, head of the Muzaffarabad Chamber of Commerce, said he wanted free trade.
"It should be a permanent feature ... but as of now, nothing seems permanent," he said.
(Additional reporting by Sheikh Mushtaq; Writing by Robert Birsel; Editing by Alex Richardson)

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