Demonstrators mar historic India-Pakistan aid-exchange

Top civilian official: "They say that adversity unites people. This is what is happening today."

pakistan peace flag 298. (photo credit: AP)
pakistan peace flag 298.
(photo credit: AP)
India and Pakistan exchanged quake aid Monday at their disputed Kashmir frontier in a mostly symbolic act of cooperation, but the ceremony was marred when Pakistani villagers tried to cross illegally and police dispersed them with tear gas. Hundreds of villagers on the Pakistani side of the Rawalakot-Punch crossing broke into a chant, "We want an independent Kashmir," and witnesses said two men clutching young boys in their arms tried to dash over to the Indian side of the divided Himalayan region. "The people had gathered and were trying to cross the Line of Control. Due to this reason we fired tear gas," said a Pakistan policeman who would give his name only as Tariq. A couple of shots of gunfire, possibly warning shots, also appeared to ring out, though Tariq denied that police had fired anything but tear gas canisters, and he said there were no injuries. The two men were arrested, witnesses at the scene said. The villagers dispersed and pulled back about 100 meters (yards) from the crossing. 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 October 8 earthquake. Pakistan Brig. Tahir Naqvi shook hands with Indian Col. Santnu Ghose across a white line painted at the Rawalakot-Punch border crossing set up near the Punch River, and they declared it open for aid exchanges. Trucks then backed up to the line, about five meters apart, and porters from the Indian side handed the first batch of aid - sacks packed with tents - to counterparts on the Pakistani side, who loaded them on their truck. Several other trucks stood at the ready. "It's definitely a historical 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 25 truckloads of Indian aid included tents, tarpaulins, sugar, butter and medicine. Pakistani officials said a single truckload of aid from Pakistan also would be handed over to India. The 7.6-magnitude temblor on October 8 killed about 80,000 people - most of them in northern Pakistan but also 1,350 in India's portion of divided Kashmir. The border opening that the two sides agreed to last month was supposed to have been a much grander gesture: letting civilians of divided Kashmir cross at five points to check on long-lost relatives and visit relief camps set up along the frontier. But India on Saturday said 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 insurgents might head into Indian territory. Sharma said once-a-week crossings of civilians should be allowed in about a week and that an additional frontier point, the Tattapani-Meandher crossing, should be open by then. No villagers from India's side attended the aid exchange because of tight security there.