IRelief workers and earthquake survivors on Sunday hailed an agreement between India and Pakistan to open their disputed border in embattled Kashmir as a breakthrough that will speed assistance to quake victims.
More ominously, a militant fighter in Pakistan's portion of Kashmir also welcomed the opening, saying that it would make it easier for insurgents to reach targets in India. Rashid Khalikov, the U.N. humanitarian coordinator in the quake-shattered city of Muzaffarabad, called the Pakistan-India accord "a good step in this disastrous condition."
The United Nations, along with other relief groups, has been scrambling to get relief supplies to the estimated 3.3 million left homeless by the quake in the remaining weeks before winter sets in. Muzaffarabad grocer Shiraz Nawaz said the agreement would help members of families divided by the border come together to mourn.
Indian concerns that Pakistan-based militants would exploit the opening were underscored by comments from one fighter, 22-year-old Hassan Ali, who said the agreement "will benefit us."
Both Islamabad and New Delhi must be "very careful and vigilant that militants do not use this facility which has been extended for humanitarian purposes," said security analyst Talat Masood, a former Pakistani army general.
The border openings are to begin Nov. 7. Relief goods can be sent in either direction and handed to local authorities at the crossings. Only Kashmiri civilians with families divided by the border will be allowed to cross on foot. In her first tour of the disaster zone, UNICEF Executive Director Ann Veneman said casualties could mount if the survivors do not get more aid soon.
Also Sunday, Gen. John Abizaid, head of the U.S. military's Central Command, arrived for talks on aid with Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf and other officials. The U.S. recently stepped up its relief efforts, sending in 11 more Chinook helicopters to join the 17 U.S. choppers already flying missions into the quake zone.
Though donors have pledged hundreds of millions in aid to fund the international relief effort, only a fraction has been received. The U.N. has warned its emergency reserves are very low, and that helicopters could be grounded within a week without more funding.