India and Pakistan exchanged hundreds of civilian prisoners yesterday. This marked another step in the peace process between the nuclear rivals.
There was an air of celebration along one of the most tightly controlled borders in the world as the Indian and Pakistani prisoners walked into their own countries across the Wagah border post.
Indian officials greeted the prisoners with hugs and marigold garlands. Many of the men bent to touch the soil. On the Pakistani side, relatives and friends beat drums to celebrate the release of their men.
Both countries have released prisoners from the other nation in the past, but Monday's exchange is the biggest repatriation since a peace process began last year.
The two countries agreed last month at a meeting in New Delhi to swap the prisoners. Most are farmers and fishermen caught on the wrong side of the sometimes poorly marked border. Others were held for visa violations, and many languished in prison although they had served their sentences.
A Pakistani man, Mohammad Babbar, who spent 15 years in an Indian jail, spoke to reporters as he waited in line to cross the border. Mr. Babbar says he will go home and thank all the people who helped in the process of his release, and then meet his fiancé who has been waiting for him in Pakistan since he was imprisoned.
The ceremony was widely televised in India, and is being seen as one of the most visible goodwill measures between the two countries since they began a peace process last year.
Officials from both India and Pakistan were optimistic that the prisoner swap will strengthen the peace process.
An Indian opposition Member of Parliament, Navjot Singh Sidhu, spoke to reporters as he greeted the released men at Wagah. Mr. Sidhu says the exchange gives a message of love and friendship, and will help to keep the peace process alive.
Wasim Sajjad, interior affairs minister for Pakistan's Punjab province, says Islamabad is sending home more than four hundred Indians, while New Delhi is releasing more than 150 Pakistanis. He briefly crossed the border to speak to Indian reporters. Mr. Sajjad said it was a matter of great happiness for the Indian prisoners to be able to meet their relatives.
The exchange comes two days ahead of a meeting between Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf in New York.
There is a groundswell of support among common people in both countries for the peace process, and tensions have reduced in the past year. However, the two governments have made little progress on their core dispute over Kashmir, a region divided between them, but claimed by both.