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Pakistan releases Indian prisoners as it strives to improve ties

Fishermen from India carry their belongings as they walk out from a gate before their release, at Karachi's District Malir prison, August 23
Fishermen from India carry their belongings as they walk out from a gate before their release, at Karachi's District Malir prison, August 23

By Mubasher Bukhari

WAGAH, Pakistan (Reuters) - Pakistan released 337 Indian prisoners, most of them fishermen, on Saturday in the latest sign that Pakistan's new government wants to improve rocky ties between the nuclear-armed neighbors.

But the push by Pakistan's civilian government to improve relations with India has been undermined by a series of clashes that began this month along their border dividing the disputed Kashmir region.

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif says better relations with India are key to restoring a flagging economy but it is Pakistan's military that traditionally sets foreign and security policies, even during periods of civilian rule.

The prisoners, including fishermen detained for straying into what Pakistan sees as its waters over the past two years, were allowed to go home through the Wagah border crossing, between the Pakistani city of Lahore and India's Amritsar.

"Pakistan and India were one country in past, they should compromise with each other and live peacefully like brothers," said fisherman Kailash Nathu, 17, who was heading home after being arrested in January.

Another Indian fisherman, 30-year-old Shabbir Usman, said India should now release Pakistani prisoners.

"Pakistan and India should sign a treaty for not arresting innocent fishermen. If they sign such treaty, it would help strengthen friendly relations," he said, surrounded by grinning colleagues as they approached the border crossing.

But an Indian foreign ministry spokesman said New Delhi would not make a reciprocal gesture.

"Release is only of those who have completed prison terms and have been identified as nationals. This is normal process and not a reciprocal one," the Indian spokesman said via a telephone text message ahead, of the release.

Before the latest clashes along the so-called Line of Control separating Indian- and Pakistani-controlled parts of Kashmir, the two countries had agreed to resume stalled talks on improving ties.

But many analysts doubt whether the Indian government, under pressure from the right-wing opposition, can commit to any meaningful concessions before national elections next year.

Sharif is due to meet his Indian counterpart, Manmohan Singh, at the United Nations in New York next month and Saturday's prisoner release would appear to underline his determination to improve ties.

India and Pakistan have fought three wars since becoming independent from Britain in 1947, two of them over the Muslim-majority Himalayan region of Kashmir.

(Additional reporting by John Chalmers in NEW DELHI; Writing by Katharine Houreld; Editing by Robert Birsel)

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