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India, Pakistan to Reopen Key Rail Link

Rivals Pakistan and India have agreed to reopen a key rail link between the two countries that has been closed for almost 40 years. The deal may be one of the most important transportation agreements between the two countries since air links resumed last year.

Following two days of talks in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, negotiators from the two sides agreed in principle Friday to restore rail service along their southern border.

The Khokrapar-Munabao rail crossing, closed since the 1965 Indo-Pakistani war, links Pakistan's largest city, Karachi, with India's largest, Bombay.

In a joint statement, the negotiators said they had reached agreement on re-opening the line and would begin rebuilding the long-ruined infrastructure before meeting again at an unspecified date.

Pakistani press reports say the Indian side hopes to begin service by October, but that this time frame may not be feasible for Pakistan, given the amount of construction necessary.

Amid a peace process begun in April 2003, the two nuclear-armed neighbors restored passenger air links late last year. In January, rail service reopened between their respective halves of the agricultural Punjab region.

But retired Pakistani Lieutenant General Talat Masood, a leading authority on Indo-Pakistani relations, says the southern rail link is vastly more important.

As most of the "mohajirs" - Muslims who fled from India to Pakistan after the partition of the sub-continent in 1947 - live in the south, the new rail line should see tremendous passenger volume.

"A very large percentage of people who migrated from India live in Karachi and Sindh. They have a serious problem of visiting India, and vice versa," he explained.

Even more important, General Masood says, is the implication for trade between the two sides.

"The same train could then be used for freighting, taking goods from one part to the other…The cost of freight is so [much] less on trains in comparison to any other route," he said.

The rail agreement is the latest in efforts to normalize relations between Islamabad and New Delhi.

The Indian and Pakistani foreign secretaries are slated to meet later this month to continue peace talks.

While Pakistan is primarily concerned with resolving competing claims over the mostly-Muslim mountain territory of Kashmir, the Indians are said to be more interested in increasing economic ties.