Pakistanis pledge special steps for quake crossings
MUZAFFARABAD, Pakistan, Oct 31 - Pakistan said on Monday it would make special arrangements to give earthquake survivors easy access to Indian Kashmir over concerns bureaucracy would hamper the efforts of thousands to cross the border.
Pakistan and India agreed at the weekend that five points along their military border in Kashmir, known as the Line of Control, would be opened from Nov. 7 to allow earthquake relief and people from both sides to cross to see family and friends.
They agreed that those wishing to travel would follow the same procedures as people who have used a cross-border bus service launched in March.
But that process, which involves six applications forms, exchanges of lists of applicants from the two sides and then laborious checks, can take up to a month.
The two countries said they would try to process applications within 10 days but there are doubts that can be done.
"Bureaucracy is slow, they're going to have to evolve a new system," an official in Pakistani Kashmir, who did not want to be identified.
"They couldn't cater for the demand from bus passengers -- thousands applied but only 500 went. If they're going to go for the same system they're not going to deliver and I think they're going to go for the same system."
However, Minister of Social Affairs Zubaida Jalal said there would be special arrangements for earthquake survivors.
"There will be specific arrangements, keeping the situation in mind, arrangements on both sides to facilitate that, so I think they'll be able to cope with it," she told a news conference in Muzaffarabad, capital of Pakistani Kashmir.
She did not elaborate, but said the opening of the Line of Control would be a big boost for divided families.
"Once it really opens up, psychologically and otherwise, it will make a big difference for the people on both sides."
KASHMIRIS HAIL MOVE
Ordinary Kashmiris welcomed the news that they may soon be able to cross the line that has separated Kashmir since India and Pakistan fought their first war over the region shortly after their independence in 1947.
"The opening would be a great help," said Nasir Butt, who lives in the Neelum valley, northeast of Muzaffarabad.
The valley was hit hard by the Oct. 8 quake, which left 55,000 people dead in Pakistan and 1,300 in Indian Kashmir. More than three million others were left homeless or needing shelter.
The road linking the Neelum valley to Muzaffarabad has been swept away and blocked by landslides and it will not be opened before winter arrives in a few weeks.
"Our village is only separated from India by the river," Butt said. "My relatives are over there. Winter is coming and we could easily get food and tents from there."
He did not know how he would have to apply for permission to cross the border, but officials say he would have to apply at the district capital -- several hours walk away.
Another valley resident said he did not mind waiting a bit longer. "We've already waited three weeks, we can wait another couple," said Ali Share. "We want aid before the snow starts."
Relief officials say the opening of the line will help some cut-off communities but it is not going to come anywhere near to solving all of their problems as they race to get shelter and food to hundreds of thousands of survivors before winter.
Aid workers fear hunger and exposure could kill as many as who died in the quake unless help reaches them quickly.
The border agreement was reached despite bomb attacks on Saturday in the Indian capital New Delhi that killed at least 59 people and were claimed by a Muslim group linked to banned Pakistan-based militant outfit Lashkar-e-Taiba.
A charity linked to Lashkhar called Jamaat-ud-Dawa has been at the forefront of quake relief work in Muzaffarabad, working alongside international relief agencies and Western troops.
Jamaat-ud-Dawa operates with impunity, running religious schools and hospitals, although it draws its cadre from Lashkar, a group banned by President Pervez Musharraf in January, 2002.
Musharraf banned Lashkar after it was blamed for an attack on India's parliament that brought nuclear-armed India and Pakistan close to their fourth war.
Last week, Musharraf alluded to the prominent relief role played by groups like Jamaat. He said the government would act against them if they were found to be involved in activities other than welfare, such as drawing people towards militancy.
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