(by Patrick Goodenough, Oct. 11, 2005, CNSNews.com) – Offers by India to help Pakistan cope with the effects of Saturday’s huge earthquake have raised hopes that the tragedy could accelerate moves already underway to improve ties and defuse tensions in one of the world’s most dangerous flashpoints.
Another factor that could help to calm the situation in Kashmir over the longer term is the disruption the quake reportedly has caused to terrorist training bases in the Pakistan-controlled sector of the divided Himalayan territory.
Indian security officials have been quoted as saying that bases have been destroyed or damaged, and terrorists killed.
Islamist groups fighting for Kashmiri independence or to end Indian control over part of the predominantly Muslim region have bases and offices near the epicenter of the earthquake.
Pakistan denies longstanding Indian allegations that it sponsors such groups, and their presence and violent activities across the frontier — known as the “Line of Control” (LoC) — is a major cause of bilateral tensions.
As estimates of Pakistan’s death toll continue to climb well above the 20,000 official figure, Islamabad accepted an offer from India – which itself lost hundreds of people in the earthquake — to fly in relief material including tents, blankets and medicine starting Tuesday.
Earlier, President Pervez Musharraf told CNN he appreciated Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s offers of help
“We need to work out what we would like to have from them,” he said. “You do understand there is a little bit of sensitivity there. But I expressed my gratitude and we will work out whatever we need from them we will certainly ask.”
Those sensitivities were evident when Pakistan turned down India’s early offers of helicopters to help rescue efforts in hard-to-access areas. Islamabad demurred despite the fact it had said helicopters were urgently needed. (Among other assistance, the U.S. is providing eight military helicopters — five CH-47 Chinooks and three UH-60 Blackhawks, the White House said.)
But in signs of progress on the ground, India and Pakistan relaxed the usual tight grip they hold on their respective sides of the LoC, for instance tolerating unauthorized crossings of the border amid the post-earthquake confusion, and allowing helicopters to fly right up to the border.
“Since the areas which have been devastated by the earthquake are very close to the LoC, we are allowing Pakistani helicopters to come right up to the LoC,” Indian Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran told a press briefing.
“I am very happy to say that the same thing is being done from their side because we also need to reach some of our own villages which are at the LoC itself. So, the atmosphere is very good.”
Saran said India had also told Pakistan that it may find it easier to access some affected areas more easily from the Indian side.
It’s a far cry from the traditional levels of mistrust and suspicion in the area. India and Pakistan fought two full-scale wars over Kashmir, and came close to a third in 1999 when a series of skirmishes over more than two months cost the lives of 1,200 troops, raising fears of another, more serious conflict between the newly-nuclear capable neighbors.
Soldiers on both sides of the LoC were among the earthquake casualties — as many as 1,000 in Pakistan’s case, reported to have been killed when concrete-roofed bunkers collapsed.
Over recent months the two countries have laid the groundwork for more tranquil relations, and introduced a bus service last April linking the two sides for the first time in half a century.
Over the summer they signed an agreement to set up hotlines in a bid to minimize the likelihood of new conflicts erupting. Those hotlines were used after the earthquake, as officials and military officers discuss offers of aid and coordination issues.
Natural disasters have brought foes closer together before: Greece and Turkey helped each other after both were hit by earthquakes in 1999, heralding an improvement in relations.
The U.S. and Britain both sent help to Iran following the Bam earthquake on Boxing Day 2003; Israel also offered to send a highly-regarded rescue squad but Tehran declined.
Exactly one year later, a devastating Indian Ocean tsunami was seen as a catalyst that prodded along talks aimed at ending a bloody, 29-year separatist conflict in the Indonesian province of Aceh.
A peace treaty signed by Jakarta and rebels two months ago referred to the central role played by the disaster: “The parties are deeply convinced that only the peaceful settlement of the conflict will enable the rebuilding of Aceh after the tsunami.”
Indian security analysts say the earthquake could have a significant effect on terrorist groups based in Pakistan-ruled Kashmir, where senior Indian military officers believe at least 55 camps are located.
Among the Islamist groups located there are several on the U.S. State Department’s list of foreign terrorists organizations, including Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT).
A number of their bases were close to the earthquake epicenter, and most had offices in Muzaffarabad, the capital of the Pakistan-controlled portion of Kashmir. Outlook India quoted security sources as saying many had been “damaged to a great extent.”
Press reports quoted a LeT spokesman as saying the group had lost many members.
On Sunday, an umbrella body of 14 extremist groups called the Muttahida Jihad Council announced after a special meeting that it would be suspending “jihad activities” for the time being because of the earthquake.
The decision did not, however, prevent terrorists — suspected to be from the Hizbul Mujahideen group — from attacking and killing nine members of two Hindu families near the border in the early hours of Monday morning.
Also, Indian security forces on Sunday shot dead eight LeT fighters who had crossed the LoC from the Pakistan-ruled side.
And in another incident Sunday, Indian troops arrested four suspects after discovering a large cash of explosives in a sheep truck headed for Srinagar, the capital of the Indian-administered part of Kashmir.
“The terror attack amid the natural disaster only confirms that terrorists are a brutalized people, hopelessly locked into a circle of violence,” the Indian Express said in an editorial Tuesday.
“It further warns us that we attribute political causes and reasons to them at the nation’s peril.”
The Times of India was skeptical about hopes the earthquake would degrade the terrorists’ ability, saying that a number of terrorist bases are in Pakistan-proper, including at least 15 in the North West Frontier province and seven in Punjab province.
It quoted unnamed Indian officials as saying terrorists killed in the earthquake were “basically cannon fodder” while the terrorist leaders were safely located outside of Kashmir, in the cities of Islamabad and Lahore.
More than 65,000 people are reported to have been killed in the Kashmir conflict since 1989.
Reprinted here with permission from CNSNews.com. Visit the website at www.cnsnews.com.
1. What 2 factors related to the earthquake might improve relations between India and Pakistan? (For a map of the area, click here.)
2. Why is Kashmir a major cause of tension between India and Pakistan? (For background on Kashmir from Human Rights Watch, click here.)
3. What initial offer of assistance from India was turned down by Pakistan? How is the U.S. helping in this area?
4. What assistance has Pakistani President Musharraf since accepted from India? Why do you think Pakistan accepted this help?
5. How many wars have India and Pakistan fought over Kashmir? Describe two steps India and Pakistan have taken in recent months toward establishing a peaceful relationship. (para. 15-16)
6. Why did rebels and the Indonesian government sign a peace treaty recently?
7. How do reports by Outlook India (para. 23) differ from those of The Times of India (para. 31-32)?
For a good website about earthquakes click here.