ISLAMABAD — The probable loss of an entire garrison of Pakistani troops to a Himalayan avalanche on the country's disputed border with India has firmed national support for settling the longstanding political disputes between the nuclear-armed neighbors.
In particular, the avalanche has refocused the attention of Pakistanis on the futility of posting thousands of troops on the Siachen Glacier, where 6,200 troops have died since it notoriously became the world's highest battlefield in 1984. Ninety percent of the troop deaths were due to hypothermia and other climate-related ailments, according to peace activists.
The Pakistani military has all but acknowledged the deaths of 124 mountain soldiers and 11 civilians, whose garrison at an altitude of some 16,000 feet was buried under 80 feet of snow early Saturday. The military's spokesman, Gen. Athar Abbas, has asked the Pakistani public to "pray for a miracle."
Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani effectively signaled the government's acceptance of the massive loss, offering the Muslim fateha prayer — offered for the dead — for the soldiers at a meeting of the federal Cabinet on Wednesday.
Some 240 rescue workers, using detection dogs, earthmoving machinery and shovels, have braved subzero temperatures and blizzards since Sunday to work around the clock to find the men of the Northern Light Infantry buried alive at the Gayani garrison.
An eight-member U.S. search-and-rescue team joined the increasingly desperate efforts this week as infantry troops and earth-excavating machinery dug five tunnels into the snow in attempts to detect survivors, but to no avail. No bodies have been recovered, either.
The tragedy coincided with a one-day visit to India on Sunday by Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, the first in seven years by a Pakistani president, ostensibly for a pilgrimage to a Sufi shrine in the northwest Indian city of Ajmer. Politics trumped spirituality, however, with Zardari and his son first stopping in New Delhi for a lunch with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and top officials of the ruling Congress Party.
The cordial meeting, coming against the tragic backdrop of the avalanche, has sparked calls from across Pakistan's political spectrum for the acceleration of negotiations with India, with which it has fought four wars since the countries gained independence in 1947.
Opposition leader Nawaz Sharif set aside a war of words with Zardari to voice support earlier this week for improving relations with India and resolving their dispute over the disputed territory of Kashmir, where the glacier is located.
Sharif was particularly supportive of the president's suggestion that India's world champion cricket team should tour Pakistan.
"I am ready to do my part in reviving ties. ... I want to be part of the Pakistani team when India comes to play," joked Sharif, a cricket enthusiast.
Politicians from Pakistan's ruling coalition government have called on India to accept its proposal to "demilitarize" the Siachen Glacier. Defense officials from both countries discussed proposals in May 2011, but the talks stalled after India insisted that Pakistan first recognize its troop positions so that Pakistani forces would not subsequently occupy them.
"What we want is the honorable withdrawal of forces to pre-1984 positions," said Qamar Zaman Kaira, spokesman for Zardari's Pakistan Peoples Party.
Pakistan and India had in 2006 come close to reaching an agreement on their core disputes over Kashmir, said Khurshid Kasuri, Pakistan's foreign minister at the time. The process was scuttled, however, by the Pakistani militant organization Lashkar-i-Taiba, which days later launched a four-day killing spree in Mumbai, India's largest city, that cost 166 lives.
Peace talks were tentatively resumed last year after Singh invited Gilani to watch the Pakistani team play a semifinal match in the cricket world cup in India.
In the absence of agreement on any substantial political issues, talks on reducing trade restrictions have taken the lead. Prodded by its closest ally, China, Pakistan agreed in December to remove restrictions on Indian imports of fresh produce, petroleum products and newsprint. Both countries have agreed to remove restrictions on most other goods by the end of 2012.
Indian and Pakistani trade ministers on Friday are expected to open a dedicated trade facility at a border post located between the cities of Lahore and Amritsar. And interior ministry officials on both sides are scheduled to meet later this month to approve a new, streamlined process for issuing business visas.
After their meeting Sunday, Zardari and Singh told reporters that they had discussed "all possible issues" over delicacies that included gushtaba, meatballs from Kashmir. They agreed to work toward talks on the less controversial aspects of their bilateral relationship, and Singh accepted Zardari's offer to visit Pakistan this year.
But Singh is adamant that talks on the countries' core disputes, particularly Kashmir, hinge on Pakistan taking action against Lashkar-i-Taiba and its founder, Hafiz Mohammad Saeed.
The U.S. Justice Department last week offered a $10 million reward for information leading to Saeed's arrest or conviction, in a move that was widely seen as increasing pressure on Pakistan. But the Pakistani government has said it cannot act against Saeed because Pakistani courts — which have a fierce independent streak — acquitted him in 2009 of involvement in the Mumbai attacks.
"The problem of terrorism ... is a major issue by which the Indian people will judge progress in the bilateral relationship," India's foreign secretary, Ranjan Mathai, told reporters after the meeting between Singh and Zardari.
(Hussain is a McClatchy special correspondent)
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