PAKISTAN/INDIA PEACE BRIDGE (Reuters) – Separatist politicians from Indian Kashmir officially visited Pakistani Kashmir for the first time on Thursday in another sign of slowly improving relations between South Asia”s nuclear rivals.
Doves were released as leaders of the All Parties Hurriyat (Freedom) Conference walked across a newly constructed "Peace Bridge" into Pakistan”s part of the Himalayan territory after travelling by bus from Srinagar, Indian Kashmir”s main city.
"A very huge process is in place. I think we have to move forward. I am in Kashmir, I left home and I have arrived home," Abdul Ghani Bhat, a senior Hurriyat leader, told journalists on the Pakistani side of the bridge.
Thousands of people lined the route, waving banners and flags as the visitors were taken aboard a heavily guarded bus to Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistan”s part of Kashmir.
Flags and banners in favour of independence groups like the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) outnumbered those of hardliners who want all of Kashmir to belong to Pakistan. "Kashmir is our land and we will decide its future," read one.
Hardline Kashmiri leaders had refused take part in the visit in protest at the Pakistan government”s negotiations with India.
No breakthrough was expected, but the Kashmiri leaders hope their visit will mark the start of a three-way dialogue between India, Pakistan and themselves to help untangle the dispute.
India had previously refused to allow the separatist politicians to visit the Pakistani side of Kashmir.
"I am remembering my colleagues who have been martyred," former militant Mohammad Yasin Malik, chairman of the JKLF, said as he crossed the bridge.
India says more than 45,000 people have died since a revolt against New Delhi began in Kashmir in 1989, and the region has been at the centre of two of the three wars India and Pakistan have fought since winning independence from Britain in 1947.
India and Pakistan have held talks over a range of issues including Kashmir since they began a peace process 18 months ago, but Kashmiris have not been formally part of the dialogue.
The most tangible sign of progress so far has been the start of a bus service in April to help unite families separated for more than half a century by the division of Kashmir.
Malik echoed other Hurriyat leaders when he told a news conference in Muzzafarabad that Kashmiris wanted more say in shaping their destiny.
"We hope that this visit will not disappoint us and Kashmiris will be included in talks to decide their future," he said.
The Kashmiri team from India were expected to meet separatists in Pakistan”s Kashmir, national leaders including President Pervez Musharraf, and to seek talks with militants fighting Indian rule in the mainly Muslim territory.
"The Kashmir issue has come out of the battlefield and is now on the table," Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, the chief of the moderate faction of Hurriyat, told Reuters.
"But I want to tell the people of Kashmir that the visit is the first step and they should not expect miracles."
The United Jihad Council, an alliance of around a dozen militant organisations based in Pakistani Kashmir, said it would not meet the separatist leaders.