India-Pakistan: First pilgrims make new border crossing to Sikh temple

Pakistan and India on Saturday opened a new corridor and border crossing to facilitate the Indian followers of Sikh faith to visit one of their holiest shrines, which lies in Pakistan.

India's state TV reported that the first few hundred pilgrims had made the journey along the secure visa-free corridor between the two nuclear foes.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi took part in an inauguration ceremony at the border post on the Indian side. In his speech, he thanked Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan for respecting Indian sentiments.

Khan was shortly set to arrive in Kartarpur for a similar ceremony on the Pakistani side.

On Friday, Pakistan's Foreign Minister Sohail Mahmood likened the opening of the corridor to the fall of the Berlin Wall, saying it could "change the face of South Asia,” in the same way that Europe had been changed by the events of 1989.

Differences put to one side

The opening of the corridor comes despite months of heightened tensions between the neighbors, mainly over the disputed region of Kashmir.

Months of clashes and tit-for-tat cross-border air raids across the frontier in February sparked fears of wider war.

Read more: Why Kartarpur corridor is unlikely to defuse India-Pakistan tensions

The shrine to Sikhism's founder Guru Nanak lies in Kartarpur, a small town just four kilometers (2.5 miles) into Pakistani territory.

Kartapur ended up in the Muslim-majority country following the division of India and Pakistan at the end of British colonial rule in 1947.

Indians kept out

Indians have struggled make the pilgrimage due to longstanding hostility between the neighbors, who have fought three wars since independence.

Indian Sikh groups have long been demanding a road link and easing of travel permits.

The crossing was first proposed in 1999 but it would take two decades before the passage would be completed.

A final deal on access to the shrine was only agreed last month.

Officials say the corridor can cope with about 5,000 pilgrims per day. But there has been Indian opposition to a sum of $20 that Pakistan will charge each visitor.

The opening happened ahead of the guru's 550th birthday on November 12, which will be marked with celebrations by millions of Sikhs around the world.

mm/aw (AFP, dpa)

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