INDIA-PAKISTAN LINE OF CONTROL, AP -India handed tents for earthquake victims to Pakistan on Monday at a much-heralded opening of their disputed Kashmir border — a mostly symbolic act of cooperation after the region”s huge October quake. Pakistani police fired tear gas at villagers chanting for a free Kashmir.
Pakistan Brig. Tahir Naqvi shook hands with Indian Col. Santnu Ghose across a white line painted at the Rawalakot-Punch border crossing set up near the Punch River, and they declared it open for aid exchanges.
Trucks then backed up to the line, and porters from the Indian side handed sacks full of tents to counterparts on the Pakistani side, who loaded them on their truck.
"It”s definitely a historical moment," said Braj Raj Sharma, a top civilian official in India”s Jammu-Kashmir state. "They say that adversity unites people. This is what is happening today."
The border opening that the two sides agreed to last month was supposed to be a much grander gesture: letting civilians of divided Kashmir cross at five points to check on long-lost relatives and visit relief camps set up along the frontier.
But India on Saturday said it was prepared to open only one crossing, and on Sunday officials on both sides said bureaucratic wrangling would delay chances for people to cross, partly because India was concerned that Muslim militants might head into Indian territory.
Hundreds of villagers at the crossing broke into a chant, "We want a free Kashmir," and Pakistani police responded by firing tear gas canisters. A couple of shots of gunfire, possibly warning shots, also rang out. The villagers then dispersed and headed away from the border crossing.
Sharma said that the first civilians will be allowed to cross in 10 days, and that the crossings will be permitted once a week.
Hundreds of villagers on the Pakistan side watched the exchange of aid from several hundred yards away, including 58-year-old Mohammed Saleem Kiani, who called the events "just a drama."
"If we can”t go in there," he said pointing to the Indian side, "then it does not make much difference for us."
The 7.6-magnitude temblor on Oct. 8 killed about 80,000 people — most of them in northern Pakistan but also 1,350 in India”s portion of divided Kashmir. More than 3 million have been left homeless, and hundreds of thousands have virtually no shelter.
U.N. and other agencies have decried a slow global response to the calamity, saying thousands more could die of disease and exposure as the winter approaches.
The predominantly Muslim territory of Kashmir was split between Hindu-dominated India and Muslim-dominated Pakistan after the bloody partition of the subcontinent following independence from Britain in 1947. Both countries claim all of Kashmir in a dispute that has sparked two wars and kept families separated for more than half a century.
Many Kashmiris have said they want to cross the border, called the Line of Control, to see if relatives on the other side survived the quake, but some just want to be free to cross as they please.
As part of the border accord, Pakistan and India agreed to exchange lists of people intending to cross, with the other side then having 10 days to approve the names.
Mohammed Fiaz, a 35-year-old preacher watching the activity from Pakistan”s side of the border crossing, said he was hopeful people could cross soon.
"We should be prepared to wait. After a few more days, families who have been apart for 60 years can finally meet each other," Fiaz said.
In the past week, Pakistan has set up a center for travelers with tents for immigration processing, baggage checking and currency exchange.
Indian and Pakistani forces regularly exchanged fire across the de facto border until agreeing to a cease-fire two years ago. In a peace process started last year, the neighbors started a tightly controlled bus service allowing some Kashmiris to cross, but the buses were shut down by the earthquake.