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Torkham border reopened

ISLAMABAD / LANDI KOTAL: The diplomatic push to end the Pak-Afghan row over the construction of a border gate bore fruit on Saturday when Pakistan reopened the Torkham border crossing for traffic a week after skirmishes forced the closure.

The Torkham border crossing was reopened after a meeting of the border officials at what was described by the Foreign Office as the `zero line`.

`Dua was offered and gates were opened, FO spokesman Nafees Zakaria said in an update on the morning meeting, adding that `vehicular traffic was in progress`.

He said that only people with valid travel documents would be allowed to enter Pakistan from Afghanistan and immigration officials would receive travellers in groups `for ease of management`.

`No one would be allowed into Pakistan without proper documentation / verification,` another official said.

The closure of the border due to the clash which claimed four lives on both sides had started because of a dispute over the construction ofthe bordergate.

Italsolefttens ofthousands ofpassengers stranded on both sides of the border in addition to hundreds of trucks carrying cargo that were also held up.

Torkham is one of the busiest of the eight established crossing points on the 2,500kilometre-long porous border between the two countries, which is used by some 25,000 travellers every day.Pakistani officials say they will lay greater emphasis on border management as Operation Zarb-i-Azb enters the concluding phase. Afghans, who do not recognise the internationalborder,are averse toitsregulation.

The Foreign Office, meanwhile, said that an Afghan delegation led by Deputy Foreign Minister Hekmat Khalil Karzai will visit Islamabad on Monday (June 20) for talks on the issues relating to the Torkham border crossing as well as to other matters pertaining to border management.

The visit is in response to an invitation extended by Adviser to the Prime Minister on Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz to Afghan Foreign Minister Salahuddin Rabbani and their National Security Adviser Hanif Atmar for discussion on the dispute. This implies that Afghanistan is sending in a junior delegation for talks instead of the higher level with which Pakist an had initially intended to hold the meeting.

`Pakistan welcomes the visit and looks forward to meaningful deliberations through a constructive engagement between the two sides with a view to promoting bilateral relations as well as peace and stability of our two countries and the region,` the FO said.

Meanwhile, notwithstanding the US public position of not mediating in the row, its top commander in Afghanistan Gen John Nicholson, who heads Nato`s Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan, visited Army Chief Gen Raheel Sharif at the General Headquarters.

`During the meeting, regional security issues and matters of mutual interest including border management mechanism along Pak-Afghanistan border were discussed, the Inter-Services Public Relations said.

`Hugging and pleasantries` `Afghan officials hugged their Pakistani counterparts and shared pleasantries as they got together at the zero point at around 8am this morning prior to a brief reopening ceremony,` a Pakistani border guard told Dawn at the Torkham border.

Quoting official figures, another border official said that 430 Afghan nationals, both men and women carrying Afghan passports with valid Pakistani visa stamped on them, crossed over to Pakistan while another 463 Afghans who remained stranded in Pakistan due to the closure of the border went back to their country.

Faridoon, an Afghan national who had crossed the border into Pakistan, said that Afghans waiting across the border for their entry to Pakistan were a bit scared and were also apprehensive about possible rude behaviour by Pakistani authorities at the border.

`I faced no problem as I have valid documents and was rather heartily welcomed by the Pakistani borderguards,` he said, wishing that such incidents did not occur in future.

Officials told Dawn that they had requested their Afghan counterparts to send waiting Afghans on their side in small groups in order to avoid rush at the border after its reopening.

`We were also concerned about the law and order situation at the border after its reopening and had thus requested for a limited permission to Afghans wanting to enter Pakistan,` they said.

As many as 31 Pakistanis entered Afghanistan while another 23 came back to Pakistan after remaining stranded there for almost a week, officials said while quoting figures of the first day after reopening of the border.

The border reopening also brought joy to the exhausted and frustrated transporters who had been forced to park their vehicles along the Peshawar-Torkham border on a number of locations.

Rasul Jan, a trailer driver,told Dawn that the border closure had made their life miserable as they waited impatiently while fasting in very hot weather conditions.

Authorities said that they lifted curfew in Torkham which had been imposed on Sunday evening (June 12) and allowed over 200 Khuga Khel families to return to their houses which they had vacated after the start of border skirmishes.

Meanwhile, construction of the gate continued on Saturday amid cross-border vehicular and pedestrian movement. Construction workers were seen digging the earth to build pillars as well as to remove the iron fence erected along the footpath near the border to pave the way for speedy construction of the gate.

Officials said that they were also contemplating shifting the pollo vaccination booth to another suitable location as one of the pillars of the gate was to be constructed exactly at the point where the booth was now functioning.