India reopens the lines to Kashmir

AMID tears of joy and flashes of frustration, residents of Indian Kashmir yesterday made the first phone calls to the Pakistani side of the region in 15 years, desperate to find out what had become of family members caught in the massive earthquake earlier this month.

"I am very satisfied that I was able to speak [to my uncle]. I have been on tenterhooks all this while," said an overwhelmed Abdul Ghani, tears rolling down his cheeks. He had travelled 37 miles from his home town of Bandipora to call his uncle in Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistani Kashmir.

The Indian authorities have set up four centres providing free calls, but say they will be open for only two weeks.

Two of them are in the towns of Uri and Tangdhar, the worst-hit in Indian Kashmir, where the 7.6-magnitude quake on 8 October killed more than 1,300 people.

The families of many Kashmiris were torn apart when the territory was divided by a ceasefire line following a war between India and Pakistan in 1948.

India cut communications between its Jammu-Kashmir state and all of Pakistan in 1990 in an effort to stem an Islamic insurgency. Pakistanis, however, could still make direct calls to Indian Kashmir.

Distrust of the Indian government runs deep in Kashmir and some disaffected callers claimed the new phone service was a propaganda ploy. "It is useless. Most of us haven't been able to talk," said Imtiyaz Ahmad, who, along with many other would-be callers, left the Srinagar centre disappointed.

Indian Kashmir's separatists - who had been demanding the restoration of telephone links since the quake - welcomed the move but demanded the phone service be made permanent.

"The government should make this facility permanent and people should be able to call directly from their homes," the separatist leader, Umar Farooq, said.

Meanwhile, regional officials in Pakistan say new figures have pushed the death toll to nearly 79,000, although the official government toll stands at 47,700.

A strong aftershock measuring 5.8 on the Richter scale jolted the region yesterday, unleashing landslides and alarming survivors of the main quake.

The first aftershock caused a landslide in Balakot, one of the cities hardest hit on 8 October. Debris covered the road to nearby Mansehra, but it was quickly cleared. A landslide also blocked a road out of Muzaffarabad, but it was expected to be cleared later.

In Indian-held Kashmir, the new tremors startled thousands of people in relief camps, including those in the Uri and Tangdhar districts, near the boundary with the Pakistani-held territory.

Despite regular sorties by helicopters delivering aid to quake victims, an estimated 500,000 survivors, many of them in Pakistan's portion of Kashmir, have yet to receive any help.

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