The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Pakistan holds back prisoners

Chandigarh, May 17: The release of 20 Indians by Pakistan at the Wagah border today was delayed following identification problems. Elsewhere, reports that the Samjhauta Express is about to restart have gained currency among the Punjab administration.

“Twenty Indians, including six Sikh youths, who had been languishing in various jails in Pakistan, were to be handed over to the Border Security Force at Wagah today. They will now only be able to cross over tomorrow or the day after that as some formalities are yet to be completed,” a senior Amritsar district official said.

Pakistan Prime Minister Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali announced recently that Islamabad would free dozens of Indian prisoners, including fishermen allegedly caught in Pakistani waters.

This is being done in response to India’s peace overtures.

The six Sikh youths jailed in Quetta and Lahore were arrested while crossing into Pakistan from Iran after being left in the lurch by middlemen who promised to take them to the West.

They were arrested after Iranian authorities pushed them into Pakistan. The other Indians to be released belong to a cargo ship that allegedly strayed into Pakistani waters.

Efforts are also on to run the Samjhauta Express between Attari and Wagah stations.

“We have been getting feelers from the government. Restarting the Samjhauta Express entails a lot of security considerations and all measures will have to again be put in place. There are also whispers that the train could now begin at New Delhi,” a railway police officer said.

When the train, dubbed the mohabbat di gaddi (Friendship Train), was started on July 22, 1976 following the Simla Agreement, it ran between Amritsar and Lahore, a distance of 42 km. But after Punjab was hit by terrorism in the mid-1980s, security considerations led the train to be terminated at Attari. Passengers bound for Lahore would travel on the Attari Special train from New Delhi to the border station.

After immigration and customs clearance, they would board the Samjhauta Express and head to Wagah.

The train not only binds families which were separated during the Partition, but reaches out to the people of Afghanistan as well. Indian and Pakistani traders say the train link should never be snapped, whatever the provocation. They feel the train strengthens bilateral ties.

The Samjhauta Express has been halted many a time. The train was stopped for a fortnight after Operation Bluestar in 1984 and was again halted after the Babri Masjid demolition in December 1992 and the 1999 Kargil conflict. It has not run after Parliament was attacked in December 2001.

The train has been used by an estimated 1.25 crore Muslims. It has also been used by a large number of Sikh pilgrims to visit historic gurdwaras in Pakistan.

The Samjhauta Express got its name from the agreement worked out at the Indira Gandhi-Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto 1972 Simla meeting. After prolonged discussions, it was decided in 1975 to open a rail route for passengers and cargo.

The train ran daily between Amritsar and Lahore but became a bi-weekly service after some coaches were damaged in Lahore following the 1992 masjid demolition.

Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence has reportedly used the train at times to ferry small arms, RDX and narcotics to India.

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