Pakistan, India sign new travel agreement

ISLAMABAD — Pakistan and India signed a new visa agreement Saturday that makes cross-border travel easier, the latest sign of thawing relations between two nuclear-armed countries that have long seen each other as enemies.

Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar announced the agreement during a press conference in Islamabad with her Indian counterpart, S.M. Krishna. Both spoke positively about the momentum in reducing tension between the countries.

“Today there is a deep commitment from both political leaderships to ensure that the narrative that we build for our future generations is that of looking at this relationship with a different lens,” said Khar.

But Krishna’s three-day visit to Pakistan, which ends Sunday, has not produced any breakthroughs on the major conflicts between the two neighbors, including Islamist militancy and the disputed territory of Kashmir.

Pakistan and India have been at odds ever since they were both carved out of British India in 1947 amid religious bloodshed on both sides. Pakistan was formed as a Muslim-majority state, while the predominant religion in India is Hinduism. They have fought three major wars, including two over Kashmir.

Relations reached a recent low point in 2008 when Pakistan-based militants killed over 160 people in the Indian city of Mumbai. Indian officials accused Pakistan’s intelligence agency of supporting the militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba that is blamed for the attack — an allegation denied by Islamabad.

India has been frustrated by Pakistan’s seeming unwillingness to crack down on those responsible for the attack, which has limited the progress in normalizing ties between the two countries.

Lashkar-e-Taiba was formed with Pakistani support in the 1990s to pressure India over Kashmir. Islamabad banned the group several years ago under pressure from the U.S., but there is little sign that Pakistan is committed to cracking down on the militants.

Despite the disagreement over the Mumbai attack, relations between the countries have improved somewhat over the last two years, especially with respect to trade. Pakistan announced late last year that it would grant India “Most Favored Nation” trade status, which would reduce tariffs. New Delhi gave that status to Pakistan in 1996.

The announcement was seen as significant because it indicated Pakistan’s powerful army supported greater trade with India to improve the nation’s flagging economy. The army had always been seen as a barrier to a better relationship with India.

The new visa agreement signed Saturday should also increase goodwill between the two countries. The agreement makes travel easier for businesspeople, tourists, religious pilgrims, children and the elderly.

“I see a positive change in the atmosphere, and I would like to compliment the present leadership of Pakistan,” said Krishna, the Indian foreign minister, following the signing of the agreement.

The top leaders of the two countries have also met recently.

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari met with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh during a visit to India in April. He was the first Pakistani head of state to visit the country in seven years. The two also met in recent days on the sidelines of a summit in Iran.

In July, Zardari invited Singh to visit Pakistan, but Indian officials have indicated they may need to see more progress against Islamist militancy for that to happen.

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