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India and Pakistan to Launch Bus Service Across Kashmir

Pakistan and India have agreed to start a bus service linking the two capitals of the disputed Kashmir region. The landmark pact is seen as the latest fruit of the peace dialogue that the rival nations launched last year.

Agreement on the historic bus service was reached during a meeting in Islamabad between Indian Foreign Minister Natwar Singh and his Pakistani counterpart Khursheed Kasuri.

Mr. Kasuri later told a press conference that bus passengers will be given special entry passes to travel across the military line of control, the LOC, which divides the Indian-ruled and Pakistani-ruled parts of Kashmir.

"Both governments have agreed to allow travel across the LOC, between Srinagar and Muzaffarabad by bus … The bus service is expected to commence from 7th of April, 2005," Mr. Kasuri said.

The accord had been held up over the issue of visas and passes. India had insisted that passengers traveling from Srinagar to Pakistan-ruled Muzaffarabad must use Indian passports. Pakistan said this was unacceptable because it implied that the LOC was a permanent border.

The agreement will allow thousands of Kashmiri families to be reunited for the first time since the territory was divided in 1947, when India and Pakistan gained independence from Britain.

The move is seen as another major step toward building bilateral confidence. Kashmir has been the trigger for two of the three wars between the neighbors since 1947.

Mr. Singh told the same press conference that such productive steps will help further the peace process between the two countries.

"We have come a long way over the past year or so. I am convinced that cooperation between our two countries is not just a desirable objective, it is in today's context an imperative," Mr. Singh said.

The Indian foreign minister says the two sides have agreed to accelerate efforts to finalize several other agreements, including one that will bind India and Pakistan to give advance notice before conducting a missile test.

"It is also agreed that discussions would be initiated on agreements on reducing risk of nuclear accidents or unauthorized use of nuclear weapons," Mr. Singh said.

Mr. Singh is the first Indian foreign minister to pay an official visit to Pakistan in more than 16 years. He also held meetings with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz.