India, Pak begin prisoner swap

Wagah, September 12:

Indians freed from Pakistani jails returned home today to be greeted with hugs and garlands as the two countries began exchanging more than 500 prisoners as part of their peace process. The prisoner swap began with a group of eight Indians crossing via the Wagah border post, the only land crossing between the South Asian rivals. The eight were welcomed with floral garlands and hugs from Indian officials waiting at the border post as the exchange got under way just two days before the countries’ leaders meet in New York.

Others were waiting on both sides of the border to cross once their papers had been processed. The exchange follows an agreement between the two countries’ home secretaries in New Delhi on August 30, that all prisoners who have served their sentences should be freed. On the Pakistani side, family members and friends were celebrating the releases with the beating of drums. The mood was more subdued on the Indian side, where among those waiting were relatives of 54 Indians whom they said had been held prisoner since being captured during the 1971 war between the arch-rivals. The relatives were clutching photographs of their loved ones and holding placards demanding their return. None of them was expected to be among those crossing today since Pakistan denies holding any prisoners of war.

India last week announced it was setting free 152 Pakistani civilian prisoners while Pakistan said it would release 371 Indian fishermen held for illegally fishing in its waters. Wasim Sajjad, interior affairs minister for Pakistan’s Punjab province who crossed into India at Wagah briefly to address waiting reporters, said however: “Pakistan will release 435 Indians today.”

He did not specify who the other prisoners were. The move “would bridge the gap between India and Pakistan as it will create a more cordial atmosphere between two nations,” Sajjad said. The prisoner exchange comes two days before a meeting between Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly session in New York. Singh and Musharraf are also expected to focus on the five-decade-old dispute over Kashmir.