SALAMABAD, October 21 – India and Pakistan began trading between their respective parts of Kashmir for the first time in six decades on Tuesday, raising hopes of a drop in tension in the disputed Himalayan region.
A convoy of 13 trucks carrying mostly apples set off on a historic trip to Pakistani Kashmir from the Indian-zone of the divided state, with 14 trucks packed with Pakistani fruit making the journey in the opposite direction.
"It is a historic day which will surely help the economy of both parts of Kashmir," said Indian Kashmir\’s Governor N.N. Vohra, as he flagged off the convoy from Salamabad, 12 kilometres (seven miles) from the Line of Control.
"I hope it will herald peace in the region," he said of what officials on both sides hope will be a twice-weekly trade.
Speaking on the other side of the heavily militarised border, Pakistani Kashmir\’s Prime Minister Atiqur Rehman said he also hoped the event will "help make headway towards resolving the Kashmir issue."
School children and people on the Pakistan side raised slogans "Kashmir will become Pakistan," and "Long Live Kashmir freedom movement."
Kashmir was split into two zones in the bloody aftermath of independence of the subcontinent from Britain six decades ago. Both India and Pakistan claim the region in full.
The largely symbolic crossing shortly after midday was the first time that vehicles were allowed to cross Aman Setu or Peace Bridge on the LoC since arch rivals India and Pakistan fought a war over the region in 1947.
A Muslim insurgency broke out in Indian Kashmir in 1989, although militant violence has fallen sharply since the nuclear-armed states began a peace process in 2004 aimed at settling all issues including the future of Kashmir.
But in the past few months, the Kashmir valley has witnessed the biggest pro-independence demonstrations since a revolt erupted in 1989, triggering a violent crackdown by Indian security forces.
Security was tight for the trade opening, with even the fruit subject to stringent security checks.
"The items were scanned in x-ray machines here before allowing the truckers to take them across," police officer Faisal Qayoom told AFP.
The opening of the trade route has been a key demand of Kashmiri separatists.
In recent months they led weeks of protests that were sparked by a decision provide land in the Indian-controlled part of the region to a Hindu pilgrim trust.
Although the Indian government backed down, Hindu hardliners then enforced a punishing blockade of the only road linking the Kashmir valley with the rest of India.
Developments that calm tensions will be good news for Indian authorities, who announced plans at the weekend to press ahead with polls in Indian Kashmir later this year despite the recent upheavals in the state.
Kashmiri truckers from both sides said they were delighted about the resumption of trade.
"I am very happy to be part of this historic moment," said Ghulam Hassan Baba, a driver from Srinagar.
"Never in my dreams I had imagined that one day I will drive my truck and go to the other side," said Mazhar Hussain, the driver of the first Pakistani truck.
Separatists, however, say India still needs to acknowledge that Kashmir is disputed, and be prepared to address the underlying issue of the future of the region.