Earthquake tragedy: Indian aid accepted but Pakistanis still wary of rivals

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Pakistan has agreed to accept aid offered by India for earthquake victims in a concrete sign of the improved relations between the two nuclear-armed hostile neighbours.

But prospects of "earthquake diplomacy" providing a breakthrough in their long-running dispute over Kashmir appeared dim, as Pakistan turned down an offer of Indian helicopters despitean urgent appeal. Pakistan also ruled out joint rescue operations in the divided Himalayan region.

In other words, humanitarian aid is welcome, but not anything that would involve the military. India accepted similar relief aid from Pakistan after the 2003 earthquake in Gujarat.

The Pakistani-controlled part of Kashmir suffered the worst death toll from the 7.6-magnitude earthquake with at least 20,000 people reported killed. In the Indian portion of Kashmir, more than 965 died.

India is to dispatch a planeload of 25 tons of food, tents, medicine and other supplies for possible delivery today after Pakistan broke a two-day silence to accept the relief aid. "When it is a question of tragedy of this magnitude it's not a question of one-upmanship," the Pakistani Foreign Minister Khursheed Kasuri said in a live television interview with Indian television. "That is why the President of Pakistan has gone on record as having said that we aren't going to stand on ceremony."

Yet despite Sunday's telephone call between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India and President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan, the two countries, which have fought two of their three wars over Kashmir, remain wary of each other's intentions. Pakistan, which appealed for urgent logistical help on Sunday, including helicopters, apparently feared India might drop spotters into Pakistan-controlled Kashmir if the offer of helicopters was accepted.

On the possibility of joint search-and-rescue operations in the divided territory, the Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Tasnim Aslam said "there is no population" right on the border that divides the territory between the two neighbours, "so ... there is no possibility of joint operations".

In a more positive sign, Islamic militants put down their weapons in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir to help with the relief effort. In Indian Kashmir a top rebel commander ordered the suspension of rebel violence in the earthquake-hit zone.

India says Pakistan harbours militants in Pakistani-controlled Kashmir who have fuelled the 16-year Islamist revolt against Delhi's rule in Indian Kashmir. Pakistan denies the charge.

There have been precedents of major natural disasters prompting a rapprochement between enemies. The most striking example came after the Boxing Day tsunami struck the Indonesian province of Aceh, where separatist rebels had been fighting the central authorities for three decades. The disaster, which killed 130,000 people in Aceh, persuaded the Indonesian authorities to open up the oil-rich area which had been closed to the world, and led to seven months of talks brokered by the former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari which culminated in a peace accord signed in August.

Greece and Turkey engaged in "earthquake diplomacy," creating a lasting improvement in relations, after 17,000 people died in the 1999 Turkish earthquake.

But the 2003 Bam earthquake in Iran failed to lead to a rapprochement with America, despite the acceptance of aid from US relief organisations. And offers of aid from Venezuela and Cuba were rejected by the Bush administration in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

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