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Disaster Brings Slight Thaw to Kashmir

India and Pakistan relax border controls to allow people to aid relatives. But prospects for a political breakthrough remain dim, analysts say.

October 19, 2005|Carol J. Williams and Henry Chu | Times Staff Writers

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Moved by an earthquake that unleashed death and destruction on both sides of divided Kashmir, Pakistani and Indian leaders agreed Tuesday to at least temporarily scale back barriers that have kept families apart for 58 years.

During a visit to Muzaffarabad, the quake-ravaged capital of the region of Kashmir that Pakistan controls, President Pervez Musharraf appealed to New Delhi to allow Kashmiris to cross the de facto border and bring aid to suffering relatives.

"We will allow every Kashmiri to come across the Line of Control and assist in the reconstruction effort," Musharraf said during a news conference after touring the flattened city of 600,000, also suggesting that leaders from both countries meet and collaborate.

India responded with uncommon swiftness. "We welcome the offer," the Foreign Ministry said in a statement. "This is in line with India's advocacy of greater movement across the LOC for relief work and closer people-to-people contacts."

It was the latest and most significant confidence-building gesture to follow the Oct. 8 temblor, which killed at least 42,000 people. Some estimates place the number of fatalities at up to 100,000. Earlier, India sent three shipments of relief goods and agreed to temporarily suspend the "no-fly" zone over the de facto border to allow Pakistani helicopters to deliver aid and evacuate the injured.

Kashmiris long separated from loved ones by the political standoff have been hopeful that the disaster would break the stalemate on how to proceed toward unification and possible independence.

"This is the worst tragedy to befall this region, but I think God knew what to do to give impetus to this standoff," Rada Ilkhaq, a refugee from Indian-controlled Kashmir who was languishing in a Muzaffarabad tent city, said on the eve of the diplomatic breakthrough.

Musharraf and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh have been unusually cooperative and congenial since the quake took its harshest toll on Kashmir. Their two nations, which now are nuclear armed, have twice gone to war over the territory.

But analysts in both countries are not sanguine about the prospects for long-term rapprochement. Neighborly support in a time of crisis is a typically Eastern custom, they say, not to be mistaken for relinquishing entrenched positions.

The earthquake is "a blip on the radar screen," said Vinod Saighal, a retired Indian general and author. "The reason is that the underlying tensions are far more deep. The entities that impel them forward are not going to change their stance."

For India's part, "there's no way they can cede any portion of Kashmir, which is what the Pakistanis want.... No Indian government can do that," he said.

As for Pakistan, a resolution of the Kashmir question would strip the country's dominant institution, the military, of its raison d'etre, Saighal said. Islamabad's military leadership derives its power from the 500,000-strong force.

The first Indian military planes to arrive in Pakistan since 1971 have come this month on relief missions. Musharraf praised Singh's "very kind" offers of assistance, including helicopters to bolster the ongoing humanitarian airlift.

As the vital role of such aircraft became clear, with roads blocked by landslides and many hard-hit villages inaccessible except by flight, the Pakistani government sought and received permission from New Delhi during the weekend to run relief sorties over the 477-mile Line of Control. But India's offer to augment the fleet was in effect rejected Monday, when Islamabad said Indian helicopters were welcome but not Indian pilots.

"There's still a great deal of reluctance for joint relief operations," former Pakistani Foreign Minister Tanvir Ahmad Khan said of the show of solidarity by Musharraf and Singh.

Negotiations over Kashmir have been at an impasse since a January 2004 cease-fire that followed Musharraf's hint that Pakistan might dispense with its traditional insistence that a united Kashmir's affiliation be decided by a referendum. India has steadfastly refused to approve such a vote.

With more than 80% of the territory's people Muslim, New Delhi apparently fears that a majority vote would result in either independence or alignment with Pakistan, undermining India's character as a secular democracy and possibly encouraging other secession movements driven by ethnic or religious identity.

Analysts are little encouraged for the long term because, they say, officials have wasted other recent opportunities to break the stalemate. Musharraf and Singh met in New York in September during the United Nations General Assembly session and made no effort to move forward, Khan said. Neither did the Indian foreign minister's visit to Islamabad a week before the earthquake result in the slightest deviation from the script that has been recited for decades.

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