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ISLAMABAD, Aug 29 In a landmark decision, the government approved on Saturday a self-governance reforms package for the Northern Areas aimed at giving it full internal autonomy, but without the status of a province, and changed its name to Gilgit-Baltistan.

The People's Party, Pakistan Muslim League-N and PML-Q have supported the decision, but most nationalist parties rejected the package as a 'gimmickry of words'.

They contend that the region was an integral part of Jammu and Kashmir and any change in its administrative status betrayed a tacit shift in the government's stand on Kashmir.

Amanullah Khan, chief of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), said the move had robbed the Northern Areas of a special status, virtually converting it into the country's fifth province.

Prime Minister Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani briefed newsmen after obtaining approval from the cabinet for the 'Gilgit-Baltistan Empowerment and Self Governance Order 2009', which will replace the Northern Areas Legal Framework Order of 1994.

Under the order, Gilgit-Baltistan Assembly will formulate its own Rules of Procedures, while legislation on 61 subjects will be done by a council and an assembly in their respective jurisdictions.

In reply to a question, Mr Gilani said the Council did not need the parliament's shelter as it will have its own Rules of Business, while a boundary commission has also been set up.

Elections for a new assembly and a chief minister will be held in mid-November.

Qamar Zaman Kaira, the federal minister for Kashmir and Northern Areas, will act as governor till a new system is put in place. He said the order would now be sent to President Asif Ali Zardari for final consent before its implementation. The legislative assembly will have 24 directly elected members, six seats for women and three for technocrats.

In order to empower the Council and the Assembly on financial matters, there shall be a Council Consolidated Fund under Article 54 of the Constitution, and Gilgit-Baltistan Consolidated Fund under Article 55.

A detailed item-wise budget shall be presented before the Gilgit-Baltistan Assembly and shall accordingly be voted upon under Article 56.

Qamar Zaman Kaira said a 'supreme appellate court' shall be headed by a chief judge who will be appointed by the Chairman of the Council on the advice of the governor. Other judges shall be appointed by the chairman on the advice of the governor after seeking views of the Chief Judge, Mr Kaira added.

The number of judges has been increased from three to five and the tenure of the present judges of the Supreme Judiciary has been protected in the draft.

The new set-up will have a public service commission, a chief election commissioner and an auditor general.

CONDEMNATION Amanullah Khan, chairman of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), said Islamabad had lost support of the Security Council over the years due to a 'wavering stand' on Kashmir and now it was squandering whatever goodwill it had by merging Gilgit-Baltistan with Pakistan.

Sabir Ansari, Raja Latif Tahir, Nazir Ahmed, Mushtaq Ghazali and Ghulam Ahmed Butt, all office-bearers of the Front, said that Jammu and Kashmir, including Gilgit-Baltistan, was an indivisible unit and Islamabad had no right to slice off any part of it.

They said every government had usurped fundamental rights of these areas and the present one had outdone its predecessors by turning the region into a fifth province.

They expressed fears that 'real powers' would rest with the governor, the president's nominee who will not be answerable to Gilgit-Baltistan Legislative Assembly. Local people will have no constitutional protection, the JKLF statement said.

Nationalist parties in Hunza-Nagar rejected the Self Governance Order, describing it as old wine in a new bottle.

Hafizur Rehman, a member of the Northern Area Legislative Assembly, termed the package a gimmickry of words and said once again the centre was trying to hoodwink the people of the Northern Areas.