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Pakistan Offers Access Across Disputed Kashmir Border for Quake Relief

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has made a surprise offer to allow free relief movement across the de facto border in Kashmir, to allow more aid to the quake-stricken region. As the proposal is raising hopes among local residents desperate for emergency assistance.

Aid workers say there is a long list of challenges facing them as they struggle to reach the areas hardest hit by this month's killer earthquake.

Rugged conditions, poor coordination, freezing temperatures and a lack of basic supplies in the remote areas are all frustrating the exhausted relief teams.

There is also a disputed border between the two portions of Kashmir, where the earthquake was centered. The border runs through much of the stricken region, limiting access and dividing families.

Both Pakistan and India claim Kashmir, and the so-called Line of Control divides the Himalayan territory between the two of them.

After surveying the damage in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir Tuesday, Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf said it was time to open the de facto border.

"We have decided we will allow any amount of people from across the Line of Control to our part of Kashmir to meet their relatives and to assist in the reconstruction effort," said Mr. Musharraf.

The nuclear armed rivals have fought two wars over Kashmir, and before this month's earthquake, their national armies have frequently exchanged fire across the dividing line.

India has also accused Pakistan of sending militants across the Line of Control and of supporting Islamic separatists in India's portion, which has a Muslim majority.

Shortly after the president's speech, India said it agreed in principle, but cautioned that the plan's details and official approval still have to be worked out.

The president's proposal nevertheless lifted spirits in the region, where thousands of families are still waiting for aid to reach them.

The United Nations says landslides caused by the earthquake have left more than half a million people cut off from the rest of Pakistan, and from emergency assistance.

Wednesday morning, two powerful aftershocks shook the entire region, causing fresh slides in some areas and briefly delaying relief operations.

The official death count was increased Wednesday, to more than 47,000 people in Pakistan and 1,300 in India.

Nearly three million people have lost their homes and aid workers say winter weather, now just a few weeks away, could cause a second wave of fatalities unless proper shelter can be distributed.