Pakistan and India reached an unprecedented agreement Sunday to open their heavily militarized border in disputed Kashmir to aid the flow of relief goods and reunite divided families in the aftermath of South Asia's massive earthquake.
The head of the U.N. Children's Fund warned that thousands more could die in the region from disease, diarrhea and injuries if survivors do not receive more medical attention, tents and blankets as the harsh Himalayan winter bears down on them.
About 80,000 people were killed in the Oct. 8 quake, most of them on the Pakistani side of divided Kashmir. More than 1,300 people died on the Indian side of Kashmir. An estimated 800,000 survivors still lack basic shelter with tents in short supply. Relief officials say 600,000 tents are still needed.
The two countries issued a joint statement after marathon talks to establish five crossing points along the Line of Control that divides the Himalayan region. The neighbors have fought two wars over Kashmir.
The move marks a significant step forward in the countries' tenuous relationship, marred by decades of suspicion and rivalry.
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.
The agreement came after a series of explosions in India's capital Saturday night killed at least 61 people in carnage that Indian leaders blamed on unspecified terrorists. Pakistan's government condemned the bloodshed.
Analysts hailed the politically significant border deal, praising the two countries for continuing to thrash out the accord despite the bombs in New Delhi.
"There was fear. It had been a practice in the past (in India) to blame Pakistan for anything like that. But this time nobody blamed Pakistan," said Khalid Mahmood, a research analyst at Islamabad's Institute of Regional Studies.
On Sunday, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Tasnim Aslam refused to comment on speculation by India's former spy chief Vikram Sood that the blasts may have been the work of Pakistani-based militant group Lashkar-e-Tayyaba. Pakistan outlawed the group in 2002.
"We don't know. There should be investigations and there shouldn't be any finger pointing," she said.
Aid needed desperately
U.N. humanitarian coordinator in Muzaffarabad Rashid Khalikov also welcomed the Pakistan-India accord, calling it "a good step in this disastrous condition. It will open an opportunity to extend humanitarian help to the affected people in the far-flung villages alongside the Line of Control."
The United Nations, along with other relief groups, has been scrambling to get relief supplies to the estimated 3.3 million left homeless by the quake, many of them in remote mountainous areas, before the harsh winter sets in.
In her first tour of Pakistan's quake-ravaged Kashmir, UNICEF Executive Director Ann Veneman said casualties could mount if the survivors do not get more aid soon.
"The fear is that we could lose thousands of people additionally to diarrhea, disease and injuries that are not treated," she told The Associated Press. "It's absolutely urgent that as much aid gets in as possible."
Though donors have pledged hundreds of millions in aid to fund the international relief effort, only a fraction has been received. The U.N. has warned its emergency reserves are very low, and that helicopters could be grounded within a week without more funding.
The border openings are to begin Nov. 7. Relief goods can be sent in either direction and handed to local authorities at the crossings, the joint statement said. Only Kashmiri civilians with families divided by the border will be allowed to cross on foot.
Ministry spokeswoman Aslam said the agreement is a major humanitarian measure and expressed hopes that the border crossings would remain open on a permanent basis.
In Muzaffarabad, quake survivors such as shop owner Shiraz Nawaz, 26, said the agreement will allow families divided by the border to reunite.
"My cousins want to come here from Srinagar to express sympathies over my father's death. This agreement will help them. This will increase the chances for relatives to meet in this atmosphere of grief," he said.
Procedures for crossing the border will be similar to those implemented earlier this year when bus service resumed between the two capitals of disputed Kashmir, Muzaffarabad and Srinagar. People wanting to cross would have to apply for a permit from government officials on either side to verify their identities.
Crossings will be allowed at the Pakistani-Indian border towns of Nauseri-Teethwal, Chakothi-Uri, Hajipur-Uri, Rawalakot-Poonch, and Tattapani-Mendhar. Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz said Sunday that Pakistan will set up relief camps with medical facilities at the five crossings.
Since the quake, India has delivered tons of supplies to Pakistan, and on Wednesday offered $25 million. India is setting up three relief camps on its side of the border where Pakistani quake victims can get medical help, food and relief supplies.