NEW DELHI, Feb. 16 -- India and Pakistan agreed Wednesday to run buses across the cease-fire line that divides the Himalayan province of Kashmir, invigorating a 13-month peace process that some had feared was running out of steam.
The accord is the most significant since the nuclear-armed powers began negotiating early last year to end more than half a century of conflict, much of it turning on the status of Kashmir. It was one of several confidence-building measures announced in Islamabad following a meeting there between the Indian and Pakistani foreign ministers.
Kashmiris in Srinagar light firecrackers to celebrate a new bus service that will traverse the cease-fire line in the province.
(Fayaz Kabli -- Reuters)
On a practical level, the bus service will help reunite Kashmiri families that were divided in 1947, when the subcontinent was partitioned and the new nations of India and Pakistan fought the first of two wars over the mostly Muslim region. The buses are tentatively scheduled to start running on April 7. They will link the cities of Srinagar, the summer capital of Indian-controlled Kashmir, with Muzzafarabad 80 miles to the west on the Pakistani side of the cease-fire line, called the Line of Control.
"We have come a long way over the last year or so," Indian Foreign Minister Natwar Singh said during an appearance with his Pakistani counterpart, Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri, in the Pakistani capital Wednesday afternoon.
"I'm convinced that cooperation between our two countries isn't just a desire and an objective, it is in today's context an imperative," Singh said. "The people of both countries clearly desire it."
Since the two governments agreed early last year to open a "composite dialogue," they have taken several steps toward normal relations, such as easing visa requirements and organizing a series of cricket matches. Such "people-to-people" exchanges have been enormously popular on both sides of the border.
But in recent months the peace process has seemed to bog down. Pakistani officials accused India of breaching a water-sharing agreement by building a new hydroelectric dam. Last month, each side blamed the other for violating a 15-month cease-fire along the Line of Control. And Pakistani officials have expressed frustration over what they regard as India's reluctance to grapple with the "core issue" of Kashmir, suggesting that their patience might be wearing thin.
The bus proposal, meanwhile, had foundered over India's insistence that travelers who use the service carry passports, in keeping with New Delhi's long-held position that the province is an integral part of its territory. Pakistan, which considers all of Kashmir to be disputed, had rejected the condition. But the two sides finally agreed to finesse the matter by providing those who use the bus with special travel permits, a solution that represents something of a concession by New Delhi.
In another important gesture toward Pakistan, Singh said India would consider a proposal to import natural gas from Iran via a pipeline that would traverse Pakistani territory, provided India's security concerns are met. Pakistan is eager for the pipeline because it would yield an estimated $500 million a year in transit fees. India is eager to diversify its energy supply to fuel its booming economy.
"The pipeline provides a guarantee of sorts that there will be no more hostilities," said retired Lt. Gen. Salahuddin Tirmizi, a former corps commander in Pakistan's army.
The two sides also agreed to reopen a long-dormant rail link between the provinces of Sindh in Pakistan and Rajasthan in India; establish a new bus service between Lahore, Pakistan, and the Indian city of Amritsar; and remove a key stumbling block to the opening of an Indian consulate in Karachi and a Pakistani consulate in Bombay. India has already announced plans to grant 10,000 visas to Pakistani sports fans for a forthcoming cricket series between the two countries.
But it is the opening of the Kashmir bus service that will carry the greatest symbolic weight, linking both sides of the province along one of the world's most volatile flash points.
Since 1989, Indian security forces have struggled to quell an insurgency in Kashmir -- known formally as Jammu and Kashmir -- by local separatists and Pakistani militants operating with the support of Pakistan's intelligence service.
In 2002, India and Pakistan nearly went to war over the province for a third time, raising fears of the world's first nuclear exchange, before U.S. and British diplomacy defused the standoff.
Since the start of the peace process, Indian officials have acknowledged a sharp drop in the number of militants crossing into their territory from the Pakistani side of Kashmir.
News of the bus service was greeted with delight in the province. "This is the first concrete step to restore peace in Kashmir," Said Abdul Ghani Bhatt, a separatist political leader, said in a telephone interview from Srinagar, adding that the "real benefit" will come in the form of enhanced trade among Kashmiris. "It's a milestone," he said.
Mazaffar Baig, the finance minister of the provincial government on the Indian side of Kashmir, told the private NDTV television network that the bus accord "will open the hearts and minds of both peoples living on both sides" of the Line of Control. He proclaimed Wednesday as "the greatest day in the history of Kashmir."
Although the confidence-building measures were announced Wednesday in Islamabad, Pakistani officials said the real breakthroughs came in secret talks between top officials of both governments in New Delhi, London and Dubai over the past several months. Key participants were Tariq Aziz, a top aide to Gen. Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's president, and J.N. Dixit, India's national security adviser, who died of a heart attack early last month.
The negotiations yielded concessions on both sides. In agreeing to consider the pipeline, for example, India dropped its insistence on an agreement to reduce trade barriers between the two countries. And Pakistani officials backed off suggestions that they would stop moving toward normal relations with India without more progress on resolving the future of Kashmir.
At the same time, Kasuri, the Pakistani foreign minister, made clear that the issue had not gone away. "We had discussions on the core issue of Jammu and Kashmir and have impressed upon the Indian government for an early and final settlement of the issue in accordance with the aspirations of the people of Kashmir," he said Wednesday afternoon.
Khan reported from Karachi.