NEW DELHI, May 26: India has decided to resume bus service between New Delhi and Lahore as part of a peace initiative between the two countries, the foreign ministry said on Monday.

The Indian government has also decided to release 70 Pakistani fishermen and 60 civilian prisoners from Indian custody.

Foreign ministry officials said the decision was taken to improve people-to-people contact between the two countries.

“Accordingly, the government of India has today approved the resumption of the Delhi-Lahore bus service, on a twice-weekly basis, as soon as details have been worked out by the technical authorities of the two countries,” the ministry said in a statement.

“The Government of India has also decided to release 70 Pakistani fishermen and 60 civilian prisoners at present in Indian custody. They would be transferred as soon as Pakistan indicates it is ready to accept them.”

The Delhi-Lahore bus service was closed down in December 2001. It had begun auspiciously in 1999 with an historic ride by Vajpayee in a peace and goodwill gesture that inaugurated this bus service, the first of its kind since independence, to Pakistan.

The two countries have also announced a resumption of air and diplomatic links but no date for bilateral dialogue, suspended 17 months ago, has yet been set.

Analysts expect India and Pakistan to take a series of confidence-building measures before a comprehensive peace dialogue gets rolling, including discussions over Kashmir.

The latest peace gesture by India comes a day before Vajpayee embarks on a three-nation tour to Germany, France and Russia.

The Indian Prime Minister is expected to discuss the peace initiative with Pakistan with world leaders he will be meeting.

His visit will also include attending a high-powered informal summit of G-8 in Evian on the Franco-Swiss border which will be attended by leaders from Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia and the United States.

This is the first response of the Indian government to Prime Minister Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali’s gesture of setting free 20 Indian prisoners recently. —Agencies

PROGRESS REVIEWED: An inter-ministerial meeting at the foreign office on Monday reviewed progress on the improvement of Pakistan-India relations since Prime Minister Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali’s telephonic contact with his Indian counterpart Atal Behari Vajpayee on April 28, Qudssia Akhlaque adds from Islamabad.

“The purpose of the meeting was to take stock of the post-April 28 situation and to see where we stand now,” a senior official who attended the meeting, presided over by foreign secretary Riaz Khokhar, told Dawn.

“Another important aspect of the meeting was to coordinate with relevant ministries to get their standpoints on certain issues.”

Officials said there was unanimity of views that Pakistan should respond positively to any reasonable suggestion by India. It was underlined that Pakistan ought to move cautiously on all fronts, particularly on the grant of the MFN status to India. However, concern was expressed over New Delhi’s inclination towards addressing some issues to the exclusion of others contrary to Pakistan’s position of discussing all issues simultaneously, including the core issue of Kashmir.

Meanwhile, recent statements from the Indian leadership have led to certain apprehensions in official circles here.

Indian Defence Minister George Fernandes, talking to journalists the other day, ruled out talks with Pakistan in near future and Mr Vajpayee said in an interview that talks were unlikely. The Indian foreign minister also made a similar statement.

The revival of a case against Pakistan’s former deputy high commissioner in New Delhi, Jalil Abbas Jilani, has made officials sceptical about the peace process. On May 23, Indian authorities filed a chargesheet against Mr Jilani in connection with the alleged provision of funds to Kashmiri freedom fighters.

Zamarud Habib, who had apparently given the statement against Mr Jilani, disclosed last month that the police had coerced her into making the statement.

Mr Jilani, now director-general South Asia at the foreign ministry, is seen as a possible interlocutor during the lower-level talks proposed by New Delhi.

A representative of the interior ministry said Pakistan had already provided consular access to 261 of the total 344 Indian fishermen in Pakistani jails. He told the meeting that once the Indian side confirmed fishermen’s national status they would be repatriated to India. The meeting was told that India had confirmed the status of six of the total 22 Sikh youths detained in Pakistan and that the moment the status of the remaining 16 was confirmed, they would be all repatriated.

Sources said Pakistan would take a decision on the appointment of a high commissioner to India within two days.

“Going by the statements coming from the Indian side chances of an early resumption of talks between the two countries seem rather dim,” predicted a diplomat.

The foreign office was informed by the Pakistan High Commission in New Delhi on Monday evening that India planned to announce the revival of bus service to Pakistan and release of 60 Pakistani fishermen detained in Indian jails. “Pakistan welcomes these steps,” said an official.