ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan said on Wednesday his government and the military want to mend ties with arch-foe India, in the latest bid to improve relations between the nuclear-armed neighbours.
“I, the prime minister, my political party, the rest of our political parties, our army, all our institutions are all on one page. We want to move forward,” Khan said in a speech to open a new border crossing with India in Punjab province.
“If India takes one step forward then we will take two steps forward toward friendship,” he said.
Pakistan’s chief of army staff, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, was among the dignitaries at the inauguration ceremony.
The new crossing point, which will officially open next year, is about 120 km north of the Pakistani city of Lahore and will be used by Sikh pilgrims coming from India on a visa-free basis to visit holy sites in Pakistan.
The agreement is a rare instance of cooperation between the South Asian rivals which have fought three wars since independence from Britain in 1947.
Appealing for a thaw in ties, Khan called for improvements in trade and other cross-border interaction and urged ending poverty through cooperation.
Muslim Pakistan and mostly Hindu India have a range of disputes but their main bone of contention is the Muslim-majority Himalayan region of Kashmir, which they both claim in full but rule in part.
India accuses Pakistan of training and arming separatist militants battling Indian security forces in the Indian part of Kashmir.
Pakistan denies that saying it only offers political support to the Kashmiri people’s campaign against what they see as unjust treatment by New Delhi.
Violence in Kashmir routinely triggers tension between the two countries.
In September, India called off a meeting between their foreign ministers to protest against the killing of Indian security personnel in Kashmir.
Khan said both countries stood to gain from better ties.
“We need leaders on both sides of the border who resolve to end this problem and I assure you the problem will be solved,” Khan said.
“Can you imagine how much this would benefit both countries?”
However, it is Pakistan’s military, not its civilian leaders, that has traditionally set policy towards India, and military leaders have invariably been more cautious.
The tourism minister of India’s Punjab state, Navjot Singh Sidhu, was among officials who crossed the border for Wednesday’s inauguration.
“Both the governments should realise that we have to move forward,” Sidhu, a Sikh, said in a speech before Khan spoke.
Next year is the 550th anniversary of the birth of the founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak, in a small village near Lahore.
Thousands of Sikhs from India and beyond every year visit a shrine in the Pakistani village of Kartarpur, where Nanak died.
Writing by Saad Sayeed; additional reporting by Malini Menon; Editing by Darren Schuettler, Robert Birsel