Foreign Ministry officials from the two sides met in Islamabad on Saturday to work out an agreement allowing Kashmiris to cross the heavily militarised Line of Control, the cease-fire line that divides the disputed Himalayan region.

Arriving in Pakistan late on Friday, the head of the Indian delegation, Dilip Sinha, told reporters that the atmosphere between the two countries was positive and that "we hope to have useful talks."

Pakistan's Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Tasnim Aslam also expressed optimism, saying she hoped the two sides would reach an agreement ending what she called "procedural difficulties" preventing cross border travel.

 

Since Pakistan's President General Pervez Musharraf first suggested allowing Kashmiris to help each other recover from the massive earthquake, both governments have shown a willingness to open the border, but have failed to iron out differences in their proposals over how to do it.

Crossing the land border in Kashmir was forbidden for 58 years until Pakistan and India agreed to open a twice-monthly bus service earlier this year.


Pakistani proposal

 

Pakistan has proposed that the de facto border dividing Kashmir, over which India and Pakistan have fought two of their three wars, could be opened in five places.

 

However, an agreement in principle has been hampered by a disagreement over details.

India wants to open three relief stations so villagers on the Pakistani side do not have to go far to reach safety.

Both India and Pakistan have been criticised for politicising the disaster, and political analysts say the talks are likely to result in only limited crossings for stranded villagers.

Helicopters are a vital lifeline to
many devastated areas

Pakistan's Foreign Ministry has proposed that relief goods could be received by both sides at the five points it had identified, but added that it was more important that Kashmiris could visit their kin on the other side.

Indian defence sources have said there will have to be some agreement on identity verification to prevent crossings by Pakistan-backed militants fighting Indian rule in Kashmir.

Pakistan is accepting aid from India, which said it had offered $25 million, but has refused to let Indian troops join the rescue work on Pakistani soil.

The talks could yet delay over issues including what kind of documentation people would need to cross the border, as well as disagreement over the means for distributing aid.

With many roads blocked by landslides, the massive UN-led relief effort has relied heavily on helicopters.

 

But Pakistan has told New Delhi it would accept Indian helicopters only without crews - a proposal rejected by India.

UN appeals

The United Nations is warning that its helicopters ferrying desperately needed food, tents and medicine will be grounded within a week unless donors make good on pledges of hundreds of millions of dollars.

"The situation is quite grim. With the money we have already, and much of it obtained from our own internal emergency reserves, we can keep the helicopters running for one week," said Michael Jones of the UN World Food Programme in Islamabad.

Thousands of victims are still turning up each day at makeshift clinics, suffering increasingly from diseases such as scabies, diarrhea and pneumonia.

 

Winter is expected within weeks, adding to hardships facing survivors who lack shelter and a food supplies. Pakistani meteorologists are forecasting a much harsher than normal winter in the high Himalayan mountains.

Average temperatures would also be a few degrees below normal, at times dipping as low as minus 20 Celsius (minus 4 Fahrenheit), Mohammed Hanif at the Pakistan Meteorological Department said.

The official toll from the quake in Pakistan rose on Friday to 56,000, although local officials put the number at about 78,000.

 

Another 1350 people died in Indian-held Kashmir.


Aftershocks
 

Meanwhile, another aftershock measuring 5.5 on the Richter scale struck the area early on Saturday.

It was the largest of 30 aftershocks in the previous 24 hours and may have caused minor damage in the worst affected areas like Muzaffarabad, seismological department head Qamaruz Zaman told AFP.

More than 1000 aftershocks have jolted the area since the massive 7.6 magnitude earthquake devastated Kashmir on 8 October.

There were no immediate reports of damage or injuries from the latest tremor.