Sat, Jul 12, 2003 - Page 5 News List

India-Pakistan border opens cautiously

GLOBAL VILLAGE The scene was full of journalists and guards -- and a few genuine passengers -- as the direct transport link re-opened for the first time in 18 months

REUTERS , WAGAH, INDIA-PAKISTAN BORDER

Indian Border Security Force personnel stand guard at the India-Pakistan Wagah check post in the northern Indian state of Punjab,yesterday.

PHOTO: REUTERS

Decked with a banner hailing friendship and escorted by police jeeps, buses left India and Pakistan yesterday for the first cross-border journeys in 18 months as the nuclear rivals rebuild ties.

A two-year-old Pakistani girl going to India for heart surgery was on the luxury air-conditioned bus which rolled out of Lahore for the 12-hour ride to New Delhi as bystanders released dozens of balloons in the air.

The corresponding send-off in the Indian capital was more austere. Horns blared and police sirens wailed as the vehicle left under heavy rain at dawn. Most of the 35 passengers were journalists, but two commandos were also on board.

"I have been waiting to go home by whatever means came first," said Zubaida Sultan, an Indian married to a Pakistani who missed her brother's funeral because of the border closure, said as she boarded in Lahore.

The bus service is the most tangible sign so far of warming relations after nuclear rivals India and Pakistan came close to war last year. During the crisis, India severed all transport links, and recalled diplomatic staff.

Security was tight yesterday, with armed escorts for both buses. Passengers were frisked and the Pakistani bus searched as it crossed the border at Wagah, where the Indian bus was due later in the day.

Many passengers are anxiously looking forward to seeing relatives, some for the first time in years, when they arrive in Lahore and New Delhi early yesterday evening.

"I am very very happy. I am seeing my sister after three years," said Abdul Qayoom Wani, a civil servant on the Indian bus who said he was from Kashmir, the territory at the heart of hostilities between India and Pakistan.

For little Noor Fatima, the child aboard the Pakistani bus, the long-awaited resumption means medical treatment in India for the two holes in her heart.

The buses have attracted huge attention on both sides of the border. Indian television covered the departure from New Delhi live -- 19 of the people on board were journalists. Only 13 were genuine passengers, six of them children.

The Pakistani bus carried 28 passengers -- nine of them journalists -- two drivers and a liaison officer.

"We have to come together," Nilofar Masood, an Indian Muslim married to a Pakistani, said of India and Pakistan as she boarded the bus in Lahore with her three children.

"I am extremely excited."

India and Pakistan cut road, rail and air links 18 months ago and came close to a fourth war last year after a December, 2001 attack on the Indian parliament New Delhi blamed on Pakistan-based militants fighting its rule in Kashmir.

The abrupt closure trapped many people on both sides of the border, unable to afford the expensive airfare home via third countries such as the United Arab Emirates.

But in April this year, 78-year-old Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee declared he would make one last push for peace in his lifetime and the two nations have restored full diplomatic relations and are resuming transport links.

And on Thursday, South Asian nations said their leaders would meet for a summit in Pakistan in January, offering the possibility of informal top-level talks on the sidelines between India and Pakistan.

Reopening the bus service is the latest in a series of steps aimed at laying the groundwork for formal peace talks. But no date has been set for restarting air and rail travel.

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