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India, Pakistan No Closer on Kashmir Despite Earthquake Diplomacy

The October 8 earthquake that hit both India and Pakistan triggered hopes that the shared tragedy would bring the two adversaries closer, and give momentum to the recent thaw in their ties. There have been tentative efforts to reach out to each other, but the sensitive issue of the divided region of Kashmir still remains a hurdle between the rivals.

To help helicopters deliver relief to remote villages devastated by the massive October 8 earthquake, India this week allowed Pakistan to operate in a no-fly zone along the heavily militarized Kashmir border. And Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf says he is ready to allow Indian Kashmiris to travel freely to the Pakistani side to help in reconstruction efforts - an offer India welcomed.

These are the latest of several friendly gestures between the rivals in the aftermath of the quake that struck close to the Line of Control dividing Kashmir between them.

Within hours of the disaster, the stricken neighbors had exchanged sympathy. And Indian Air Force planes have ferried medicines, blankets and tents to Pakistan, which is dealing with devastation on a far larger scale.

Both Delhi and Islamabad have waived travel restrictions to allow Kashmiri families who had traveled to the other side of the valley before the quake to return home.

Some analysts say these are significant steps forward for the two rivals, who began a peace dialogue early last year after pulling back from the brink of another war in Kashmir.

C. Raja Mohan is a strategic affairs analyst at New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University. He says the two neighbors are tentatively building on the thaw in relations following the quake.

"Given the kind of baggage that the two countries have carried on Kashmir, I think whatever they have agreed to work together on is actually quite welcome," said Mr. Mohan. "And the two military establishments are doing some tacit cooperation, as things unfold in the coming weeks and months to come, India and Pakistan will have more opportunities to work together."

But the political sensitivities related to Kashmir, which both India and Pakistan claim, are hard to leave behind.

Kashmir was divided between the two countries after they fought a war following their independence from Britain in 1947. The rivals have fought two wars over the region and their troops were in eyeball-to-eyeball contact along the border for decades until a cease-fire was signed two years ago.

New Delhi also accuses Islamabad of allowing Muslim militants to sneak into Indian Kashmir from Pakistani territory to fan a 16-year separatist insurgency among the region's mostly Muslim population.

So there was little surprise when Pakistan turned down an offer to let Indian troops join in rescue work across the Line of Control, even though some stricken Pakistani villages are far more easily accessed from the Indian side.

New Delhi in turn refused a Pakistani request for Indian helicopters for relief work because it wanted them without Indian pilots and crews. And Islamabad vehemently denied an Indian report that Indian soldiers had crossed the Kashmir border to lend a friendly hand to Pakistani soldiers repairing a damaged bunker.

Ajai Sahni heads the Institute of Conflict Management in New Delhi. He says that given their bitter rivalry, it was wishful thinking to expect any significant cooperation between the Pakistani and Indian armies, which are leading their countries' relief efforts.

"I think the reason why Pakistan has rejected Indian overtures in this case are the consequence of that long history of suspicion and hostility. You cannot do otherwise from a Pakistani perspective," explained Mr. Sahni. "They would not like Indian personnel, doctors, army men on the ground in that area."

Still, the two governments appear to be slowly responding to demands in Kashmir for easier contact across the Line of Control for people who want to help stricken relatives. Many families in the region are separated by the border, and for days after the quake they were unable to get news of their loved ones because India does not allow phone links to the other side.

India is now temporarily permitting phone calls, and says Pakistan's offer to let Kashmiris travel freely across the border is in line with New Delhi's advocacy of greater movement for relief.

People in Kashmir hope the two countries will go beyond words and actually implement the travel proposal.

Sajjad Lone heads the People's Conference Party - one of several separatist groups in Indian Kashmir. He says the disaster has once again revealed the suffering of the Kashmiri people and says India and Pakistan should work together to help the war-ravaged region.

"It is a reminder to both countries how we cannot even share the pain, forget sharing the joy between each other," he said. "We should all try and ensure there is even higher levels of cooperation [between India and Pakistan] because that is bound to alleviate the sufferings of Kashmiris either here or there."

Analysts say it is not clear whether India and Pakistan will translate their shared tragedy into an opportunity to cooperate in the reconstruction of Kashmir - or whether their bitter past will hold them back from rebuilding a beautiful region that has suffered for decades from their rivalry.