In bid to defuse Kashmiri tension, Pakistan to free Indian prisoners

Aug. 19, 2013 at 3:00 AM
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ISLAMABAD, Aug. 19 (UPI) -- Amid rising tensions along the Line of Control in Kashmir, Pakistan has offered to free 367 Indian prisoners within days. The gesture is intended to send a positive message to India.

Kashmir is currently divided between India, Pakistan and China. On Saturday, the Jammu and Kashmir summer capital Srinagar and several other major towns in India's portion of Kashmir were partially closed due to a shutdown called by Muslim separatists.

The release follows nearly two weeks of skirmishes along the Line of Control, with the worst incident occurring this month when five Indian soldiers were killed in an attack by Pakistani troops.

"Yes, it is true that 367 Indian prisoners and fishermen are being released on Aug. 24," a senior Pakistani Foreign Office official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the Press Trust of India Saturday.

The decision had yet to be officially announced. Both Pakistan and India hold 100s of their neighbors' citizens. Last week. Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's foreign affairs adviser, Sartaj Aziz, told Parliament that Pakistan currently held 491 Indian prisoners, including 437 fishermen and 54 other civilians, adding that according to Foreign Office records, there were at least 485 Pakistanis jailed in India, including 172 fishermen and 313 other civilians.

But the latest list provided by India July 1 under a consular agreement counts 386 Pakistani prisoners in Indian jails, including 108 fishermen and Aziz said the 99 prisoner discrepancy had been raised with New Delhi. Foreign Office spokesman Aizaz Chaudhry told a press conference that both "diplomatic and military channels" were being used to clarify the situation. Chaudhry added that a possible upcoming meeting between Sharif and Indian Prime Minister Mamohan Singh on the sidelines of the upcoming United Nations' General Assembly meeting next month in New York could be an "useful opportunity" to build trust and consolidate ties.

On the larger diplomatic front, the U.S. government maintains that the issue of Kashmir differs from the larger issue of terrorism in southern Asia and those two issues should not be linked. During a recent briefing in Washington, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf elucidated the Obama administration's position on the topic in response to an Indian journalist who tried to link the Kashmir issue to al-Qaida and Taliban militant terrorism. Reaffirming the U.S. position that Kashmir is a dispute that needs to be settled in bilateral discussions between India and Pakistan, Harf stated: "We are talking about two separate issues here. I want to make a distinction between the Kashmir issue and the broader issue of our concern about extremism in that region. Our position on Kashmir has not changed."

In January, shortly after a cease-fire took effect in disputed Kashmir when the Indian and Pakistani armies agreed to halt cross-border artillery duels, tensions reached an unprecedented level when officials in Indian-controlled Kashmir warned residents to build bomb-proof basements, and to collect two weeks' worth of food and water in preparation for a possible nuclear war. The officials gave no reason for the warning. Both India and Pakistan have nuclear arsenals, though analysts believe India's stockpile to be vastly larger than Pakistan's.

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