The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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A step, more a leap
- Mufti on bridge straddling two Kashmirs

Srinagar, March 13: After over half a century, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed became the first dignitary ' even the first civilian ' to set foot on the Kalian De Khan bridge on the Line of Control (LoC) that connects divided Kashmir.

Mufti visited the last Indian picket on the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad road in north Kashmir's Uri sector to oversee the work of restoring the link before the bus service starts in a little over three weeks.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will flag off the first bus to Muzaffarabad on April 7, it was announced in Delhi today, when 30 Kashmiris are expected to travel to Pakistan-occupied Kashmir to meet separated members of their families.

Mufti walked a few steps on the footbridge, called the zero line on the LoC in military jargon, describing it as a symbol of friendship between India and Pakistan. A new bridge is being built on either side for the bus to travel.

'A year ago, nobody believed that the road to Muzaffarabad could be opened,' Mufti told journalists accompanying him.

These are heady days for Kashmir.

'Prime Minister Singh will flag off the first bus from Srinagar. This was his personal initiative and the fact he is flagging it off shows how seriously he is taking the peace process,' said a spokesman for the PMO.

'By going to Srinagar, he is clearly associating himself with the bus initiative,' the spokesman added.

A year ago, many other events would have been unthinkable, too. President Pervez Musharraf coming over to India to watch a cricket match, for instance. Had there been a match on April 7 which Musharraf could attend, the coincidence would have had enormous symbolism. That is not to be ' the nearest is April 9, in Jamshedpur.

The bus link has been closed since 1947-48 and no civilian, except the workers who are making Mufti's 'bridge of friendship' possible with the toil of their hands, has stepped on Kalian De Khan since.

A team of Pakistan army officers, led by the general officer commanding of the area, will travel across the border to Uri for a meeting with its Indian counterpart tomorrow on the road reopening.

Sources said a similar Indian team visited Chakoti in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir last week. After the meeting, the two sides exchanged gifts.

Mufti dismissed suggestions that reopening the road would lead to increased militant activity. It is possible, though, that in a surge of sentiment, the chief minister overstepped his limits when he readily responded to a question, saying the separatist Hurriyat leaders would also be allowed to travel on the bus.

'There is no problem. The road is open and whosoever wants to go can go,' he said.

This is a decision that is beyond the pale of the state government and which Delhi is expected to take.

Would he go himself' 'Yes... why not' Mufti replied, but added, 'not this time'.

'Let the divided families meet each other first.'

The bus will travel 170 km on the highway between Srinagar and Muzaffarabad.

Referring again to how perceptions had changed, he said people would have laughed in the past had they been told 'signposts depicting the distance in kilometres between various places in Kashmir and Muzaffarabad were being erected in the Valley'.

Army officers who briefed him on the progress of work said the road would be ready seven days before the deadline. There are plans to do some trial runs before the service starts.

Mufti described the reopening of the road as the 'mother of all confidence-building measures taken so far by India and Pakistan'.

The bus will run once a fortnight initially, but Mufti believed that, seeing the enthusiasm of the people, in the future there would be a daily service and private traffic.

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