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New Year date for flights to restart

New Delhi, Dec. 1: India and Pakistan today agreed to resume air links and allow overflights after a two-year halt, laying the ground for Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to travel to Islamabad next month for a Saarc meeting.

Air links between two estranged neighbours will resume from January 1, 2004. The two nations also agreed to lift restrictions on the type of passenger aircraft to be flown and will hold another round of talks to update their existing bilateral aviation agreement.

The pact — hammered out at a four-hour-long meeting between officials of the two nations — follows Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf’s offer yesterday to end a ban on Indian flights over Pakistani territory. Air links between India and Pakistan were severed in January last year after the December 2001 attack on Parliament.

Earlier this year, talks on resuming air links had snapped over Pakistan’s refusal to grant India overflight facilities. Indian officials had been afraid that Pakistan would remain intransigent over this issue and the current round of talks, too, would turn into a flop show.

However, Pakistan seems to have decided to go along with India’s demand to smooth the way for Vajpayee’s travel to Islamabad for the Saarc summit being held from January 4 to 6.

“Both sides agreed to hold further discussions to update the existing bilateral air services agreement at a mutually convenient date,” a statement issued at the end of today’s meeting said.

Indian officials were led by Satinder Singh, the director-general of civil aviation, while the Pakistanis were led by Major General Mohammad Ashraf Chaudhry.

Before the decision to halt flights snapped aviation ties between the two countries, Indian Airlines (IA) used to operate a flight connecting Mumbai with Karachi. IA also used to operate a Delhi-Lahore flight in the past.

Negotiations later this month will decide which routes will be re-opened or whether both routes and possibly new routes to Indian cities like Hyderabad and to the Pakistani capital Islamabad will be allowed.

An IA official spokesperson said: “We never shut down our Karachi office and our man in Lahore is still there.”

Top civil aviation ministry officials said India had stressed on resumption of overflight facilities to connect Afghanistan and to shorten the flight time to Europe. Ministry officials said they have ordered IA to be ready to resume operations to Pakistan from New Year’s Day.

Pakistan had more to lose if this pact had remained elusive as all its flights to the Southeast and East Asia turn costlier by avoiding India and flying over Sri Lanka. “But till now they had been willing to lose money to spite us,” officials said.

Analysts feel Pakistan has consistently refused to agree to overflight facilities, fearing India will increase its influence over Afghanistan by opening direct trade through the air route. Pakistan currently denies India direct road links to the Central Asian nation, affecting trade and relief work.

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