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Old rivalries die hard in quake zone

Natural catastrophes can help to heal political divisions, but in the case of the Pakistani earthquake, the healing is slow in coming. Venu Menon reports

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf is battling criticism that his Army has focused on rebuilding defences against its nuclear rival India instead of rescuing civilians in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, worst-hit in the October 8 earthquake that left more than over 40,000 people dead and a million homeless.

It is an indication that entrenched priorities die hard in the troubled region.

After the quake, calls for a ceasefire were raised on both sides of the Line of Control, which divides the neighbours, prompting comparisons with Indonesia and Sri Lanka, where Government troops and separatist guerrillas agreed to a peace deal after the tsunami last December.

But hopes that South Asias deadliest earthquake would unite the regions longstanding rivals were soon dashed when co-operation on aid broke down.

Now faced with a mammoth humanitarian crisis, Musharraf has made a surprise offer, swiftly welcomed by India, to allow people from the Indian side to come to the aid of their fellow Kashmiris.

We will allow every Kashmiri to come across the Line of Control and assist in the reconstruction effort, Musharraf said at a news conference in Pakistan Kashmirs shattered city of Muzaffarabad yesterday.

The President said he also wanted to ease the way for political leaders on both sides to visit and interact as part of the drive to resurrect what is now a death zone.

An Indian Foreign Ministry spokesman promptly welcomed the offer, asking Pakistan to give details of how it could happen. With the political will there, it will now be up to bureaucrats to work out the terms of transit.

A well-known separatist leader, who wants Kashmir independent of both New Delhi and Islamabad, endorsed Musharrafs proposal.

Kashmiris want to help their brethren, said Yasin Malik, head of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front ( JKLF ) in Indian Kashmir.

I have already said politics should take a back seat and Kashmiris be allowed to help each other, Malik said in Islamabad, on his way to Muzaffarabad with an aid consignment.

At he beginning of last year India and Pakistan embarked on a peace process to resolve all issues, including their core dispute over Kashmir, which both claim. But progress has been slow.

After the earthquake, it was only after initial reluctance that Pakistan accepted 25 tonnes of food, medicine, tents, blankets and plastic sheets from India. However, it rejected Indias offer of helicopters. Originally, Pakistan also ruled out joint military relief operations in the disputed region.

India and Pakistan have conflicting claims on the mountainous province dating back to 1947, when the subcontinent was partitioned following the end of British colonial rule.

The two countries fought wars over Kashmir in 1947,1965,and 1971. Pakistan annexed a portion of the territory. The Line of Control was established as a ceasefire line and de facto border, even as each country has actively pursued its claim on the entire territory.

Since the late 1980s , Kashmir has witnessed a separatist movement that spawned a conflict claiming more than 60,000 lives. India blames Pakistan for fuelling the insurgency, a charge Pakistan denies.

The quake struck close to the Line of Control, inflicting casualties on both sides of the border.

It had a severe impact on militant capability on the Pakistani side, as training camps disappeared beneath landslides.

The Jihad Council, a consortium of 14 militant groups based in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, decided to suspend its operations temporarily. The council chief and
commander of the Hizbul Mujahideen group, Syed Sahabuddin, called on his cadres to suspend military operations and extend relief to quake victims .

But analysts suspect the lull is only temporary, akin to post-tsunami peace initiatives by Tamil Tiger rebels in Sri Lanka, which proved to be short-lived .

Indian military officials, quoted by the BBC, confirm the truce call by militants but claim there is no let-up in separatist violence in Kashmir since the quake struck a week ago.

A senior Indian army official is quoted as saying the quake has not affected infiltration from the Pakistan side of the Line of Control.

Nevertheless, ties between the two countries have improved in the past two years, leading to more contact across the Line of Control, highlighted by a bus service linking the disputed parts of Kashmir.

A trial run of the service linking key cities in Pakistan and India was put off following the quake.

The earthquake has left a power vacuum in its wake that Islamic groups are seeking to fill.

With the Pakistan military and international aid agencies virtually calling off rescue efforts, the militant groups have stepped in to fill the void, taking over the relief effort in areas beyond the reach of aid agencies.

Jamaat-ud-Dawa, an offshoot of the Islamic group Lashkar-e-Toiba, has earned the goodwill of quake victims in Pakistan-administered Kashmir by making its presence felt where the Government relief agencies are invisible. It runs a network of ambulances, operating theatres, wireless phones and tireless volunteers. Crucially, Jamaat has earned the distinction of being the only relief agency to use boats to ferry the dead and wounded.

More controversially, among those overseeing the relief operations of the Jamaat is orthopaedic surgeon Dr Amir Aziz, who was arrested for treating Osama bin Laden.

If the militant outfits on the Pakistani side of the Line of Control suffered extensive damage in the quake, they gained political leverage in its aftermath.

The earthquake is certain to have a political fallout for Musharraf.There is a precedent for natural disasters affecting politics in Pakistan.

The 1970 Bhola cyclone, which killed more than half a million people in East Pakistan ( now Bangladesh) undermined the credibility of General Agha Mohammad Yahya Khan. And the 1974 earthquake that ravaged the northeastern Pakistani town of Patan, killing 5000, cast a cloud over General Mohammed Zia ul-Haq.

General Musharraf has apologised to the Pakistani public for his Governments slow response to the natural disaster.His credibility rests on how far and fast he moves now.

___ additional reporting, Reuters

The New Zealand Herald * Thursday, October 20, 2005



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