India and Pakistan finally co-operate as strong aftershock hits

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Pakistan and India are planning to allow earthquake victims across the disputed Kashmir border, bringing the nuclear-armed rivals closer in the wake of a shared tragedy that killed nearly 80,000 people on both sides of the heavily fortified frontier.

Meanwhile, as a strong aftershock measuring six on the Richter scale struck the quake zone, General John Abizaid, chief of US Central Command, toured the destruction in Pakistan's half of the divided Himalayan region and promised to "do whatever is possible to help Pakistan". He said 15 more US helicopters and more troops would be arriving soon to help the relief effort.

The magnitude 7.6 earthquake on 8 October is believed to have killed at least 79,000 people, mostly in Pakistan's portion of Kashmir. About 1,360 died on the Indian side. More than three million people have been made homeless.

On Saturday, Pakistan proposed creating five border crossing points for Kashmiris to freely carry relief goods to either side. India earlier offered to open aid camps for quake victims on its side of Kashmir - a region claimed in its entirety by both countries and where they have fought two of their three wars.

"It appears to us that the proposals made by Pakistan can be reconciled with those that we ourselves had already made," an Indian Foreign Ministry spokesman said in Delhi.

Any agreement to let Kashmiris cross the frontier - long regarded as one of the world's most dangerous flashpoints - would be a clear sign of mounting trust between the rivals who began a peace process nearly two years ago.

India's proposal came in apparent response to repeated calls from Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf for Kashmiris to be allowed to cross the so-called Line of Control to help each other recover.

Another earthquake yesterday destroyed homes and killed five people in Afghanistan's eastern Paktika province near the Pakistan border. Army rescue teams have headed for the remote mountainous area.

There were no injuries reported from the aftershock in Pakistan, - of which, the epicentre was about 85 miles north of Islamabad.

Relief operations in Pakistan have taken on greater urgency, with winter fast closing in. The United Nations has renewed a call for more relief funds.

"The lives of thousands are at risk and they urgently need our help," said Rashid Kalikov, the UN co-ordinator for humanitarian assistance in Muzaffarabad. He said 800,000 people in Kashmir had no shelter.

India has provided tons of relief goods for Pakistan, but opening the border is particularly sensitive for Delhi, which has fenced and fortified the Line of Control to prevent infiltration by Islamic militants who fight Indian security forces, seeking Kashmir's independence or merger with Pakistan.

Pakistan and India both claim Kashmir in its entirety. The two governments started a cross-border bus service earlier this year, but Kashmiris' movements are still heavily restricted.

After Pakistan formally submitted its proposal to allow five crossing points at the border, the Information Minister, Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, said that "the ball is in India's court. We hope India will make the right decision."

Yesterday's Indian Foreign Ministry statement said India was "ready to engage in discussions between our two foreign offices on these modalities and reach an early decision."

Meanwhile, a UN helicopter on a mission to help victims crashed on Saturday in western Azerbaijan, killing at least four crew members. The UN-chartered Russian Ka-32 had stopped to refuel on a flight from Turkey to Pakistan.

* Al-Qaida's deputy leader is calling on Muslims to put aside criticism of Pakistan's President and give aid to earthquake victims, according to a video broadcast by Al-Jazeera TV. "You should send as much aid as you can to the victims, regardless of Musharraf's relations with the Americans," Mr Al-Zawahri said in the video recording.