India and Pakistan unite as death toll approaches 80,000

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The Independent Online

Yesterday's move came after Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf called for the Line of Control that divides Kashmir to be opened so people could cross over to help with the relief effort. The official death toll in Pakistan has risen to 47,700 but figures from local officials in affected regions put it at more than 79,000.

The United Nations' regional disaster co-ordinator said relief workers would not be able to reach some of the more remote affected areas in time to save the wounded. Two large aftershocks caused new landslides in Pakistan yesterday and there were fears that they may have caused new casualties in the remote Kaghan valley.

Kashmiris are queueing for hours on the Indian side of Kashmir for a chance to telephone their loved ones across the ceasefire line. Almost 16 years ago, the Indian government blocked all calls from the part of Kashmir it controls to the Pakistani side after the armed insurgency against Indian rule first broke out. The Pakistani government did not block yesterday's calls, and Kashmiris on the Pakistani side were able to call into Indian Kashmir.

For many, this was the first chance to hear their relatives' voices in a decade and a half. But, for some, it brought only bad news, as they learnt their loved ones had died in the earthquake.

It is an indication of how deeply the rivalry between India and Pakistan has divided Kashmir that, for many on the Indian side, this was the first news they had heard of their relatives on the Pakistani side, a week and a half after the earthquake struck.

India has agreed in principle to General Musharraf's proposal that the Line of Control be opened up to help the relief effort but no details have yet emerged on how or when it may happen. If it does, it will represent the most dramatic thaw over Kashmir in decades.

There are hopes that "earthquake diplomacy" may lead to a major breakthrough between India and Pakistan over Kashmir. But observers warn that recent moves from both sides have more to do with image than a real change in attitude.

General Musharraf in particular wants to regain hearts and minds in Kashmir amid fury from the people that the Pakistani government and army were so slow to bring help after the earthquake. Many died because aid did not come sooner.

India wants to promote itself as a benign presence in Kashmir, where its military is loathed by the people after years of brutal and indiscriminate suppression in reaction to the separatist movement.

One major effect of the earthquake has been to open up to the outside world the impoverished and neglected state of both sides of Kashmir. It has taken days for aid to reach affected areas because roads are few and in poor condition.

On the Pakistani side in particular, foreign media have not been allowed inside Kashmir for years and it remains to be seen what effect pictures of conditions there will have on support for Pakistan among Kashmiris on the Indian side.

Pakistan has accepted financial aid from India but attempts to get Indian helicopters into Pakistani Kashmir have failed. Pakistan said it would accept helicopters but not Indian pilots, probably for fear they will spy.

India, meanwhile, has refused to hand its helicopters over to Pakistani pilots.

Kashmiris themselves have expressed anger over the impasse. There is a desperate shortage of helicopters in Pakistan, and the army is having to use pack horses to reach some affected areas.

"Many people out there in the wilds, we are not going to get to in time," the UN's regional disaster co-ordinator, Rob Holden, said yesterday. "Some people who have injuries don't have a chance of survival."

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