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Goodwill sign in handover

New Delhi, Sept. 6: India today handed over a Pakistani soldier in Jammu in a definite sign that the hotline between the two militaries is lively despite tensions on the border.

Owais Mustafa, a soldier of the Pakistan army’s 647 Mujahid Battalion, was handed over to Pakistani Rangers — the Pakistani counterpart of the Border Security Force — at Suchetgarh during a flag meeting in the presence of doctors from both sides.

The soldier had strayed across the Line of Control in Rajouri sector. An Indian Army statement said he was reported to have deserted his unit.

The event signals that the institutionalised mechanism of communication between the two armies is not only intact but is at work. The request for the soldier’s return was made in the regular weekly talks between the directors-general of military operations (DGMO) of India and Pakistan. The Pakistani DGMO made the request for Mustafa’s return on June 4.

“Consequently, a decision to repatriate sepoy Owais Mustafa to Pakistan was taken on humanitarian grounds and also as a gesture of goodwill,” a defence ministry statement said. It might be of some significance that the event takes place as Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee is slated to visit the US, where the subject of India-Pakistan tensions will definitely top his agenda in several meetings.

The weekly dialogue between the two DGMOs is an institutionalised mechanism of communication. At the peak of the tension following the attack on Parliament and the subsequent massing of troops, these talks had become irregular or of “no point”, as an official had put it then.

In a second sign that there is an urge to bring about a thaw, the forces now consider it fit to hold flag meetings between local commanders.

Following the killings at the Kaluchak army camp in May, such flag meetings were all but suspended, so much so that a regular check-up in the Akhnoor sector of a telephone line connecting the two countries could not be held as firing and shelling in the zone intensified.

On two earlier occasions, too, the Indian Army had released Pakistani army personnel in comparable circumstances. On June 14 last year — before the mobilisation and positioning of troops eyeball-to-eyeball — Lance Naik Mukarram Hussain was repatriated at Suchetgarh. On January 15 this year — at the peak of the mobilisation — Naik Hakim Khan was handed over to Pakistani authorities in Kutch Sector.

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