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February 20, 1999


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Vajpayee drives across the border into Pakistan and history

George Iype in Wagah

Prime Ministers Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Nawaz Sharief created history today by opening the gates of friendship at the Wagah border and demolishing the walls of hatred that have symbolised India-Pakistan relations for the last 51 years.

At 4.10pm Pakistan Time, Vajpayee, accompanied by 22 eminent Indians, arrived at the border check-post in the Delhi-Lahore bus.

As they shook hands and embraced, hundreds of people lined up on both sides of the border, celebrating the event.

"This is a defining moment in South Asian history and we will be able to rise to the challenge," the Indian prime minister said in his opening statement.

He said it is "with a sense of elation that I find myself on Pakistani soil after a gap of 21 years".

"I bring the good wishes and hopes of my fellow Indians who seek abiding peace and harmony with Pakistan. I am looking forward to a substantive programme and talks with Sharief," Vajpayee said.

Later, in a statement, the prime minister said India welcomes "sustained discussions on all outstanding issues, including on Jammu and Kashmir".

"The solution of complex, outstanding issues can only be sought in an atmosphere free from prejudice and by adopting the path of balance, moderation and realism," Vajpayee said.

He said the running of the bus service between the two countries symbolises the people's desire to improve relations and come together.

"I am convinced there is nothing in our bilateral relations that can ever be resolved through violence," he added.

Hours before Vajpayee and Sharief shook hands to break the psychological and mental barriers that have divided the people of India and Pakistan, Wagah was bedecked in much pomp and splendour.

In an atmosphere charged with emotion and filled with musical bands and national songs, the Border Security Force and the Pakistan Rangers strained to outdo each other in the competitive celebrations on either side of the border.

Pakistan showcased its nationalism along the 35km road from Lahore to Wagah. National flags hoisted at regular intervals, freshly painted road blocks, and even flag-draped trees welcomed the special guest from India: Vajpayee.

The Rangers -- dressed exactly like India's elite Black Cat commandos --engaged such a terrific musical band that people across the border in India could be seen dancing to its tunes.

Sharief with his team of senior ministers arrived 15 minutes early to receive his Indian counterpart. Soon, as a goodwill gesture, he moved past the border check-post and the three-metre-wide no-man's land and entered Indian soil.

Later, he returned and stood outside the border gate with Information Minister Mushahid Hussain, Interior Minister Chaudhry Sujahad Hussain and West Punjab Governor Shahid Hamid to give Vajpayee an ovation.

As the bus with the Indian team arrived at Wagah, the BSF and the Rangers pulled opened the heavy iron gates of the check-post.

The BSF gave Vajpayee a guard of honour. Then a group of Punjabi bhangra dancers performed in front of the bus as the vehicle drove slowly into the no-man's land.

As the bus entered Pakistan, the Rangers began playing India's national anthem.

Vajpayee then alighted as Sharief offered him a hand. Both spent eight minutes together in the full glare of the international media.

"This is the greatest moment in the history of the world. Future generations will remember Vajpayee and Sharief for their extraordinary gesture," veteran film actor Dev Anand gushed.

The other eminent Indians from the fields of film, art, culture and cricket who had accompanied Vajpayee included Shatrughan Sinha, Mallika Sarabhai, Arun Shourie, Javed Akhtar, Satish Gujral, Kuldip Nayar and Kapil Dev.

Vajpayee also brought along his family comprising granddaughter Niharika, foster-daughter Namita and her husband Ranjan Bhattacharya.

The official delegation included External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh, Foreign Secretary K Raghunath and other senior officers from the external affairs ministry and the prime minister's office.

"By crossing the border in a bus, Prime Minister Vajpayee achieved what the Indian Army could not do with all its might in the 1965 war," a foreign journalist commented.

Despite fears of violence from militants on both sides of the border and fundamentalist Muslims in Pakistan, the bus trip was trouble-free. "We hope India-Pakistan relations will also be trouble-free in the days to come," Mushahid Hussain said.

"The bus service is seen as an important gesture of goodwill between India and Pakistan and I hope it will considerably reduce our nuclear tensions," he said.

Since May 1998, when India and Pakistan conducted underground nuclear tests and declared themselves nuclear powers, they have been under considerable pressure from other countries to improve relations.

The bus trip and the subsequent peace dialogue are expected to usher in a new era in the relations between the two countries.

While Sharief and his Cabinet rolled out the red carpet for Vajpayee, Lahore remained closed as militants of the right-wing Jamaat-e-Islami and the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front held a day-long strike.

Accusing Sharief of selling out the militants waging a secessionist battle in Kashmir, they demanded independence for Kashmir. 'We demand a united and independent Kashmir,' said the JKLF banners strung across Lahore.

As Vajpayee and Sharief stepped into a helicopter after the border-crossing ceremony, an Indian official quipped: "Their mobile summit has begun."

EARLIER REPORT: Sharief rolls out the red carpet at Wagah

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