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India offers to open cease-fire line for evacuees

Earthquake survivors wait for relief in the village of Sirran in Pakistan-administered Kashmir on Saturday.Musa Farman / Sipa Press
/ Source: The Associated Press

In another sign of growing cooperation between South Asia’s nuclear rivals, India offered on Saturday to let Pakistani earthquake victims cross the cease-fire line in Kashmir to receive aid at three relief camps it was setting up.

Islamabad, however, was guarded in its initial response, saying the two sides would have to meet to discuss the proposal, which followed calls from Pakistan’s president to open up the heavily militarized frontier for Kashmiris seeking relief.

Meanwhile, a U.S.-based human rights groups accused Pakistani officials of storing tents and other relief supplies instead of immediately distributing them to survivors of the Oct. 8 earthquake that leveled huge swaths of the region.

The allegations came as the United Nations appealed for nations to give more aid, warning of another wave of deaths unless relief arrives for the more than 3 million people left homeless by the quake before the harsh Himalayan winter hits in less than a month.

Time is against us’
“We urgently need tents, shelter and helicopters for inaccessible areas,” said Jan van de Moortele, the U.N.’s humanitarian aid coordinator for Pakistan. “Time is against us, we can buy everything with money, but not time.”

Since the earthquake, President Gen. Pervez Musharraf has called for people to be allowed to cross the Line of Control, as the border between the Indian- and Pakistani-controlled parts of Kashmir is known. The border has been long regarded as one of the world’s most dangerous flashpoints.

On Friday, Musharraf reiterated his support for the idea in an interview with the British Broadcasting Corp.: “Let people come and help this side or our people go across that side to help in reconstruction. Wherever or whoever wants to do that, let’s do it.”

Indian Foreign Ministry spokesman Navtej Sarna said Saturday that earthquake victims would be allowed to cross the border for medical treatment, provisions and shelter in three camps that could start operating as soon as Tuesday.

Pakistanis could across the border after undergoing a security check and only during daylight hours, Sarna said. The plan also calls for Indians to be allowed to cross into Pakistan to visit with relatives in relief camps there, he said.

Sign of growing trust
Permitting Kashmiris to cross the Line of Control would be a clear sign of mounting trust between the longtime rivals, raising hopes the shared tragedy of the earthquake could help the countries forge peace. India already has sent tons of relief goods to Pakistan by air and land.

Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry said the two sides would have to meet to discuss the proposal.

Pakistan and India have fought two wars over Kashmir since independence 58 years ago. Both nations claim the region in its entirety. A slow-moving peace process between the neighbors led to the opening of a cross-border bus service earlier this year, but movement of Kashmiris is still heavily restricted.

Some 79,000 people are believed to have been killed in the quake, mostly in northwestern Pakistan and its portion of Kashmir. Nearly 1,400 people have died on the Indian side of Kashmir.

Meanwhile, New York-based Human Rights Watch alleged Saturday that tents and other relief goods were being stored by Pakistani authorities rather than distributed immediately, citing eyewitness reports of an incident Wednesday in Muzaffarabad.

Liaquat Hussain, the city’s deputy commissioner, rejected the charge. He suggested the organization’s workers may have misunderstood what they saw, saying supplies are checked and registered before being sent out to quake victims.

They’re being bureaucratic’
Pakistan Human Rights Commission chairman Asma Jehangir, whose eyewitness report was cited by the group, said the tents in question had been promised to civil servants who had been helping unload supplies. She said soldiers later handed out 20 tents but put another two dozen into storage.

“I did not see ill will on the part of the government, that they were holding it for themselves, or misappropriating it,” Jehangir told The Associated Press. “But nevertheless, what they didn’t understand is the need for speed. They’re being bureaucratic.”

Relief operations have taken on increasing urgency as temperatures begin to dip across the region. In Kashmir, snow already has fallen in the high mountains, and upland villages are experiencing subfreezing temperatures at night.

Van de Moortele said at the current rate, some 200,000 tents will be in the country by winter — only enough to house about half the homeless families.