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Bus without pass across border

Islamabad, Feb. 16: It is springtime in India-Pakistan relations.

In a path-breaking agreement, the two countries have decided to allow travel across the Line of Control (LoC) between Srinagar and Muzaffarabad by bus without passports. This agreement will be without prejudice to the respective positions of the two countries on Jammu and Kashmir.

The bus service is expected to start from April 7 this year. Its frequency has not been decided yet. While the bus service will be open to all Pakistanis and Indians, including the people of Jammu and Kashmir, for the divided families in the state, it will mean more than mere travel. Nationals of other countries will not be allowed to use the service.

Travel will be through entry permits and not passports. But there will be a pre-verification procedure to establish the identity of the traveller.

Travel on the Pakistani side of Kashmir will be against an entry permit issued by Pakistan and vice versa.

Application forms for travel will be issued by 'designated authorities' in Srinagar and Muzaffarabad. On the Indian side, the regional passport office in Srinagar, under the ministry of external affairs, will be the designated authority.

The entry permit will allow travel to the entire Jammu and Kashmir. The Indian assumption is that once the travel document is issued, travel will be possible not only to Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) but also to Baltistan and Gilgit. India claims that both were part of the erstwhile undivided state of Jammu and Kashmir.

It is understood that allowing the new bus route to operate using a specific procedure different from that required for other foreign travel 'does not change or affect' the respective positions of India and Pakistan on Jammu and Kashmir.

Describing the decision as 'a humanitarian gesture' and only as a 'practical procedure', foreign secretary Shyam Saran said it was the 'high point' of the meeting between external affairs minister Natwar Singh and Pakistani political leaders.

It was evident after today's meetings that differences in perception on not only Jammu and Kashmir but also other issues remained. While the bus service across the LoC was announced through a joint statement read out by Singh, both he and his counterpart, Khursheed Mehmood Kasuri, also read out separate statements.

Singh and Kasuri refused to take any questions to safeguard the agreement reached. Kasuri said this was to ensure that nothing was quoted out of context. 'Sometimes trivial issues assume gigantic proportions (in the media) and we want to send a positive message,' he said, defending his decision to stick to the written text.

Bus services will also be started between Amritsar and Lahore and to agreed religious places such as Nankana Sahib, the birthplace of Guru Nanak. Technical talks on these are to begin immediately.

Another route that seemed ripe for opening was the Khokrapar-Munabao link from Rajasthan to Sind. Singh said he had conveyed to Pakistan India's readiness to start the rail link from October 2005.

There was a positive response from Pakistan when Kasuri said: 'The Prime Minister of Pakistan has already instructed our railway authorities to expedite early operationalisation of the Khokrapar-Munabao rail link.'

It was not clear, however, whether the October deadline would be met. The track on the Indian side is broad gauge while it is metre gauge in Pakistan.

Saran said pending the upgradation of the track to broad gauge on the Pakistani side, passengers would travel to the border and change trains.

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