India and Pakistan open quake disaster frontier

India and Pakistan agreed today to open the heavily militarised frontier in the disputed Kashmir region to help victims of the devastating South Asia earthquake, Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry said.

After more than 12 hours of talks, the two sides agreed to establish crossings at five points along the Line of Control, the ceasefire line that has divided the Himalayan region for nearly six decades as the result of the neighbours’ two wars over the area.

Opening the border in predominantly Muslim Kashmir is particularly sensitive for India’s government, which has been fighting a 16-year insurgency by Islamic militants who want Indian Kashmir to be independent or united with Pakistan. In the past, India has regularly blamed violence in the region on militants supported by Pakistan.

Crossing the ceasefire line was forbidden for 58 years, until Pakistan and India agreed to a twice-monthly bus service earlier this year. That was one of the most tangible results so far of a two-year effort to end decades of animosity and resolve the Kashmir dispute.

But it was the devastation from South Asia’s worst-ever earthquake that provided the most recent push to override long-standing suspicions between the two countries.

The border openings begin November 7. Relief goods can be sent in either direction and handed over to local authorities at the crossings, the Foreign Ministry statement said. Civilians will be allowed to cross on foot, with priority given to families divided by the border.

The unprecedented agreement came in response to the massive October 8 quake that killed about 78,000 people in Pakistan and Pakistani-controlled Kashmir. More than 1,300 people died on the Indian side of Kashmir. An estimated 3.3 million others were left homeless and fears for their lives are growing as winter closes in and aid has yet to receive some in more remote areas.

Procedures for crossing the border would be similar to those implemented earlier this year when the historic bus service between the two capitals of disputed Kashmir, Muzaffarabad and Srinagar, was restarted. People wanting to cross would have to apply for a permit from government officials on either side to verify their identities.

The five crossings would be allowed at the Pakistani-Indian border towns of Nauseri-Teethwal, Chakothi-Uri, Hajipur-Uri, Rawalakot-Poonch, and Tattapni-Mendhar.

Since the quake, India has delivered tons of supplies to Pakistan, and on Wednesday offered $25m (€21m) to a faltering UN 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.

Alarm has been growing about the fate of quake survivors as the onset of a harsher than normal Himalayan winter approaches within weeks. Pakistani meteorologists have forecast that this winter will bring an estimated 18 feet of snow in the region, compared to 10 feet in past years.

An estimated 800,000 quake victims, many who live in remote mountainous areas, still lack basic shelter with tents in short supply. Relief officials say 600,000 tents are still needed. An extensive international relief effort has been hindered by the logistical challenges of inhospitable terrain.

Pakistan will host a conference of international donors next month to raise funds for reconstruction of quake-devastated areas, state-run Pakistan Television reported Saturday. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan is expected to attend the meeting in the capital on November 19, it said.

The official death toll from the quake in Pakistan is at 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.

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