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India, Pakistan Open Trade For the First Time in Six Decades

Trucks laden with fruit, honey, garments and spices crossed the heavily armed frontier in the Himalayan region of Kashmir on Tuesday as India and Pakistan opened a trade route between the two sides of the divided region for the first time in six decades.

"I was 12 years old when I last saw baskets of fruits being packed to be sent to Rawalpindi," said Haji Abdul Ahad Bhat, a 74-year-old apple farmer from the Indian side, referring to a Pakistani city near the capital, Islamabad.

The opening of the trade route is meant to bolster a 2004 peace agreement between the South Asian rivals. The truce has appeared increasingly fragile in recent months amid dozens of cross-border shootings and charges from New Delhi that Islamabad backed attacks in India.

Separatists on the Indian side, who have stepped up demands for a trade route between Indian and Pakistani-controlled sections of Kashmir during recent mass protests against Indian rule, also hailed Tuesday's trade opening as a victory.

Kashmir has been divided between predominantly Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan since the bloody partition of the Indian subcontinent at independence from Britain in 1947. The nuclear-armed neighbors have fought two of their three wars over Kashmir, and both claim it in its entirety.

The trade route follows the introduction of other confidence-building measures in recent years, including the opening of rail and bus links between the two sides.

On Tuesday, the mood was festive as a crowd watched the governor of India's Jammu-Kashmir state send off the 13 pickup trucks heading to the Pakistani side.

"I'm completely hopeful that this will remove a lot of difficulties and create an atmosphere of friendship on the two sides," said the governor, Narendra Nath Vohra.

Dozens of school children lined the road in Salamabad, a town on the Indian side near the Line of Control, the de facto border in Kashmir, where a specially designed trading post has been set up with warehouses and security checks for the goods.

The trucks were decorated with flags and banners reading "Long live trade across the two sides."

The head of a fruit growers' association said he hoped the renewed trade would "transform the relationship between India and Pakistan to a more friendly one" and extend trade opportunities for all.

"I hope our products will not just be sent to the other side, but eventually to Central Asia and the Gulf," Gulam Rasool said.

On Pakistan's side of the frontier, more than a dozen trucks carrying rock salt, garments and raisins made the crossing.

"We want that the people of Kashmir should come closer to each other," said Sardar Attique, a top official of Pakistan-administered Kashmir as he waited in the border town of Chakothi for the Indian trucks to arrive.

"We hope the process we are starting today would ultimately lead to the resolution of Kashmir issue," he said.

Tasleem Arif, a 25-year-old truck driver from India's Jammu-Kashmir, was jubilant as he crossed the frontier.

"It was my dream and I don't believe it came true this early."

For now, the route remains largely symbolic. After the inaugural exchange Tuesday, only four trucks will be allowed across from each side once a week.

Kashmiri separatists claimed the move as a victory.

"This is the first step toward achieving economic independence for Kashmir," said separatist leader Mirwaiz Omer Farooq.

Sentiment against New Delhi runs deep in Jammu-Kashmir, India's only Muslim-majority state where most people favor independence or a merger with Pakistan.

Separatist groups have been fighting since 1989 to end Indian rule, leaving an estimated 68,000 people, most of them civilians, dead.