Leading article: The friendship bridge must not be lost

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The Independent Online

The scale of the devastation caused by the earthquake that struck the Indian subcontinent defies imagination. More than 30,000 are believed dead and more than double that injured across three countries. Yesterday, with the death toll still rising, it was clear that the region worst afflicted by far was Pakistan-administered Kashmir. Officials described it as the worst-ever disaster to have struck Pakistan.

None of the countries affected is a stranger to natural disaster. But, as with the South-east Asian tsunami last Christmas and more recently with hurricane Katrina, the speed of modern travel and communications now means that the images of human suffering are brought into our homes early enough for us to feel that something can still be done.

And much has been done. International rescue teams arrived in stricken parts of Pakistan within 24 hours of the disaster. People have been saved who would otherwise have died. Food, medicine and shelter have been rushed to the region from dozens of countries, including Britain. Inevitably there was criticism of lack of co-ordination, duplicated effort and bureaucratic delays. But this was also a disaster across vast and difficult terrain.

It would be invidious to draw any direct comparison between the response to this massive disaster and the aftermath of Katrina in New Orleans. The two are quite different. But President Musharraf broadcast an urgent appeal for international assistance as soon as the extent of the disaster was apparent. Formalities for incoming aid and rescue teams appear to have been kept to the minimum.

Mutual offers of help between India and Pakistan were an especially positive development. Natural disasters have provided unheralded opportunities for human and diplomatic rapprochement in the past. The Armenian earthquake of 1988 prompted the then Soviet Union to issue an unprecedented call for international aid and throw open the country to aid workers and reporters. Greece and Turkey sent rescue teams and assistance to each other's country after earthquakes in 1999, defusing tension in other areas of bilateral relations.

The past two years have witnessed a gradual warming of relations between India and Pakistan, with attempts to defuse the bitter and long-running dispute over Kashmir. One of the casualties of Saturday's earthquake was the so-called friendship bridge that had recently facilitated bus and foot traffic across the Line of Control. The co-operation set in train by the earthquake raises the hope that it will be the repair of the bridge, rather than its collapse, that will set the tone for relations between these two neighbours in the future.