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India, Pakistan Agree to Prisoner Exchange

India and Pakistan have agreed to release a number of civilian prisoners held in each other's jails. It is the latest goodwill measure aimed at strengthening a peace process between the nuclear rivals.

The agreement to free hundreds of prisoners who are languishing in each other's jails came at the end of two days of talks between Indian and Pakistani officials.

Indian Home Secretary V.K. Duggal told reporters Tuesday that many of these prisoners will return to their homes soon.

"We have also agreed to release on 12th September 2005, that is within approximately two weeks from now, all fishermen and civilian prisoners who have completed their sentence and whose national status has been confirmed," said V.K. Duggal.

Most of them are civilians who accidentally cross the poorly marked border, or fishermen whose boats stray into the territorial waters of the other country. Decades of hostility between the two countries made it difficult to secure the release of these people, and many remained in jail even after their sentences were over.

Both countries say they will cooperate to improve the situation. They have agreed to notify each other about arrests made and provide consular access to the prisoners within three months of their arrests.

The agreement on prisoner exchanges symbolizes the gradual easing of hostility and mutual suspicion that have marked relations between the South Asian rivals for decades.

It was a point Pakistani Interior Secretary Syed Kamal Shah emphasized while speaking to reporters at the end of the talks.

"This dialogue was held in a very cordial and friendly atmosphere, and I also reiterate this that we discussed these issues in a very, very cordial atmosphere," said Secretary Shah.

On Monday, Indian diplomats also met an Indian national sentenced to hang in Pakistan after being convicted of spying and organizing bomb blasts. There has been an outcry in India for his release after his family said it was a case of mistaken identity.

The two-day talks also focused on terrorism and drug trafficking. The joint statement reiterated the commitment of the two rivals to combating terrorism.

India said it has also focused on the need for steps to ensure that money from narcotics smuggling is not used for promoting terrorism.

The latest meeting was part of a peace process launched last January by the two countries who have been at loggerheads for decades over their dispute over Kashmir, a region both claim. Little progress has been achieved over the Kashmir issue, but there has been an easing of tensions between the rivals.