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India-Pakistan Cease-Fire Signals Another Step Toward Peace in Kashmir - 2003-11-25

Tuesday, in the first formal ceasefire since an Islamic insurgency began in 1989, Pakistani and Indian soldiers ended all hostilities on the disputed Kashmir border. The historic move is one of several steps the nuclear-armed rivals are taking to reduce tensions over Kashmir, the cause of two wars and a source of instability in South Asia.

Since gaining independence from Britain more than 55 years ago, Pakistani and Indian armies deployed along the de-facto border in Kashmir have routinely fired machine guns and artillery at each other, often killing civilians.

The shooting got worse after 1989, when Kashmiri separatists on the Indian-controlled side began a violent struggle in the mostly Muslim region.

India has accused Pakistan of sponsoring the insurgency and of providing cover fire for militants entering the Indian-held portion of Kashmir.

But Pakistan says it provides only diplomatic and political support to forces it calls Kashmiri freedom fighters.

Pakistan Foreign Minister Khursheed Kasuri says the ceasefire offer it made this week proves that it does not support the insurgents. "Now if Pakistan is willing to stop the firing what does it prove? It proves Pakistan's good intentions that we have no desire to infiltrate," he said.

Of the three wars fought between Pakistan and India in more than half a century, the Kashmir issue sparked two.

The region brought the two countries to the brink of another war last year, which was averted following international mediation. But this year, the two sides are working to improve relations.

Within hours of Pakistan Prime Minister Zafarullah Jamali's order for a unilateral ceasefire, India responded by ordering a cease-fire of its own, not only in Kashmir, but along the entire border separating the two countries.

Opposition leaders in Pakistan, such as legislator Aitezaz Ahsan, are describing the move as a breakthrough.

"We have to live on the same soil together," he said. "We have to learn to live in peace and friendship with each other. There is just no way out."

Mr. Ahsan says the military establishment in Pakistan has, in the past, hindered such a significant peace move.

"… Prime Minister Jamali is taking these initiatives, he has obviously been able to persuade the generals…," he said. "It is ultimately a good sign for peace between India and Pakistan."

Residents of Pakistani Kashmir are also welcoming the truce, saying they desperately need a resolution to the conflict.

In addition to the loss of lives, they say the hostilities have created serious economic hardships, which are often ignored by the two governments.

Professor Taqdees Gilani teaches at a university in Muzafarabad, the capital of Pakistani Kashmir.

"As Kashmiris we feel very, very deprived," he said. "There is a need to compensate us by really taking some measures, something should be done for Kashmiris."

In addition to the landmark cease-fire, the two countries have agreed to open talks on other confidence-building measures.

These include starting a new bus service linking the two sides of Kashmir, and restoring ferry service between the Pakistani port of Karachi and the Indian port of Mumbai.

Negotiations have already begun to resume air travel, which India cut after an attack on its parliament in December 2001. The Indian government accused Pakistani intelligence of helping Kashmiri separatists to launch the attack.

Observers hope these measures will create a more positive atmosphere when the two sides meet for a regional summit in January in the Pakistani capital.

Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee is promising to attend the meeting, marking the first time an Indian head of state has visited Pakistan since 1999.