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India, Pakistan seal deal on Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus link

By Amit Baruah and
B. Muralidhar Reddy

ISLAMABAD, FEB. 16. In a major breakthrough, India and Pakistan today agreed to allow travel across the Line of Control (LoC) by bus between Srinagar and Muzaffarabad. The service, under consideration since October 2003, is expected to start from April 7.

"Travel will be by an entry permit system, once identities are verified. Application forms for travel will be available with [the] designated authorities in Srinagar and Muzaffarabad," said a joint statement issued after the talks between the External Affairs Minister, Natwar Singh, and the Pakistani leadership.

Open for all citizens

The Foreign Secretary, Shyam Saran, told presspersons that the bus service could be used by all Indian and Pakistani citizens for travel in the whole of Jammu and Kashmir, including Baltistan and Gilgit. The frequency of the service is to be worked out.

He saidall Indians would have to apply to the Regional Passport Officer, Srinagar, the designated authority, and the entry permits issued by India and Pakistan would be accepted by either side.

Route may be de-mined

Mr. Saran said that the LoC along the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad route would be de-mined if necessary and all other measures to operationalise the bus service, including security concerns, would be taken up very soon. He clarified that India viewed the bus service as a humanitarian measure without prejudice to the stated positions of both countries on Jammu and Kashmir.

The much-awaited bus agreement was given the green signal after Mr. Singh met the Pakistan President, Pervez Musharraf, at the Army House in Rawalpindi this morning. This was Mr. Singh's first official engagement after arrival here on Tuesday evening from Kabul.

Six agreements

Mr. Singh and his Pakistani counterpart, Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri, who did not take questions at a joint press appearance, reported agreements in separate statements on a number of subjects. These include: a new Amritsar-Lahore bus service, expediting the Khokrapar-Munabao rail link and the lease of a government building and a plot of land in Mumbai to Pakistan for the simultaneous opening of the Pakistani consulate in the Maharashtra capital and the Indian consulate in Karachi.

Mr. Kasuri said that Pakistan had "noted with satisfaction" the Indian decision to consider the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline as a stand-alone project. "We hope for the early finalisation of an agreement."

On his part, Mr. Singh said that India had agreed to look at a gas pipeline through Pakistan if its concerns on security and assured supplies were addressed.

"As you can see, we have come a long way over the past year or so ... I am convinced that cooperation between our two countries is not just a desirable objective; it is an imperative," read Mr. Singh's statement.

He said the process could be sustained only in an atmosphere "free from terrorism and violence, in the framework of implementation of [the] commitment made [by Pakistan] on January 6, 2004." Mr. Singh said that both sides had instructed their officials to finalise agreements by July 2005 on pre-notification of missile tests, an understanding between the Indian and Pakistani Coast Guard and narcotics authorities.

Both countries also agreed to initiate discussions on agreements for nuclear risk reduction, unauthorised use of nuclear weapons, prevention of incidents at sea and alleviation of the situation of civilian prisoners and fishermen.

Rail link

According to Mr. Kasuri, the Pakistan Prime Minister, Shaukat Aziz, has instructed the authorities concerned to expedite work on the Khokrapar-Munabao rail link between Sindh and Rajasthan. India wants the rail service to start in October.

"We hope that the Joint Study Group meeting at the level of Commerce Secretaries to be held in New Delhi on February 22-23 will come up with recommendations which will be mutually beneficial to both countries," he said.

Pakistan also reiterated its invitation to the Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, to visit the country. Mr. Singh told Pakistani leaders that he would convey this sentiment to Dr. Singh upon return to New Delhi.

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