Pakistan police disperse demonstrators at Kashmir

INDIA-PAKISTAN LINE OF CONTROL (AP) – Pakistani police fired tear gas to disperse Kashmiri villagers trying to cross into Indian territory illegally, marring an unprecedented frontier ceremony by the South Asian nuclear rivals to exchange earthquake aid.

U.N. agencies announced a shortfall of $42.4 million for relief aid in the month of November, warning the death toll could surge as the onset of the bitter Himalayan winter cuts off communities.

Several hundred protesters gathered on the Pakistan side of the Punch Valley in disputed Kashmir, frustrated by a delay in plans to let civilians cross the frontier as part of relief efforts. Nobody was reported hurt, but authorities arrested at least two men carrying young boys who made a dash to the Indian side of the region.

“We want a free Kashmir and we want to travel freely,” said Mohammed Saffir Abbasi, a 57-year-old retired Pakistani army soldier, as he wiped his eyes that were watering from the tear gas that wafted across the fields, just 200 yards from the Line of Control.

The trouble broke out less than an hour after Indian and Pakistani officials shook hands across a length of white tape run across a ceremonial dirt square. India then started handing over 25 truckloads of tents, blankets, food and medicine, while Pakistan sent one truck of relief goods to India.

“Some enthusiasts tried to cross. It’s a military zone and we fired tear gas as we didn’t want anyone to lose a limb,” Pakistani army Brig. Tahir Naqvi, the area commander, said. He added that while the area had been cleared of land mines, “you don’t want to take chances.”

Some gunfire rang out, possibly warning shots, though police denied they had fired anything but tear gas canisters.

Earlier, India began handing over tents, food and medicine to Pakistan as part of a much-heralded partial opening of their frontier, following the region’s devastating Oct. 8 earthquake.

Naqvi shook hands with Indian Brig. A.K. Bukshi across a white line at the crossing and they declared it open for aid exchanges.

Trucks then backed up to the line and porters from the Indian side handed the first batch of aid to counterparts on the Pakistani side, who loaded them on their truck. The process was repeated with other trucks.

“It’s definitely a historic moment,'” said Braj Raj Sharma, a top civilian official in India’s Jammu-Kashmir state. “They say that adversity unites people. This is what is happening today.”

Sharma said the Indian aid included tents, tarpaulins, sugar, butter and medicine. Pakistani officials said a single truckload of aid from Pakistan was being handed over to India.

No villagers from India’s side attended the aid exchange because of tight security there.

The 7.6-magnitude temblor that hit Oct. 8 killed about 80,000 people. More than 3 million people were left homeless.

Some 200,000 people living in the high valleys or above the snow line still require assistance, but access will get steadily harder due to deteriorating weather and mudslides, said a report from the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. U.N. agencies hoped to accommodate 150,000 people in camps, it said.

The U.N. World Food Program said 100,000 survivors in northern Pakistan had yet to receive any form of aid.

The border opening that Pakistan and India agreed to last month was supposed to have been a much grander gesture: letting Kashmiris cross at five points to check on long-lost relatives and visit relief camps set up along the frontier.

India said Saturday it was prepared to open only one crossing, and on Sunday officials on both sides said bureaucratic wrangling would delay chances for people to cross, partly because India was concerned that Muslim militants might head into Indian territory.

Sharma said once-a-week crossings of civilians should be allowed in about a week and an additional frontier point, the Tattapani-Meandher crossing, should open by then.

Villagers on the Pakistani side said they want to be ruled neither by India nor Pakistan and demanded that Kashmir be united. Mohammed Saleem Kiana, 58, called exchange of aid “just a drama.”

“If we can’t go in there,” he said pointing to the Indian side, “then it does not make much difference for us.”

Predominantly Muslim Kashmir was split between Hindu-dominated India and Muslim-dominated Pakistan after independence from Britain in 1947. Both countries claim all of Kashmir in a dispute that sparked two wars and kept families separated for more than half a century.

Many Kashmiris say they want to cross the border, called the Line of Control, to see if relatives on the other side survived the quake.

Pakistan and India agreed to exchange lists of people intending to cross and Sharma said that would occur in three or four days. He said the first crossings should be approved by Nov. 14. Priority would be given to members of divided families, he said.

Indian and Pakistani forces regularly exchanged fire across the de facto border until agreeing to a cease-fire two years ago. In a peace process started last year, the neighbors started a bus service allowing some Kashmiris to cross, but the buses were shut down the quake.

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