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Border Tension Snags Fishermen

Twelve-year old Sagan Veera was asleep at sea when the Pakistani coast guard kicked him awake. The Indian trawler he worked on had strayed into Pakistani waters in the Arabian Sea. Now he languishes in jail, his young face etched with fear.

Hundreds of fishermen share his fate, imprisoned for months, even years, by rivals Pakistan and India for violating a disputed maritime border — despite a yearlong peace effort and agreement by the South Asian countries to release those already held.

Scores more fishermen are being arrested each month — mostly on the Pakistan side — as boats lacking modern navigational equipment cross the watery frontier in the hunt for a big catch.

Veera, from Por Bander in India's western Gujarat state, was the youngest of the 55 Indian fishermen from 10 boats produced before a court last week after their arrest at sea.

At a police lockup in Karachi, he recounted to The Associated Press his surprise when a uniformed Pakistani official — rather than a fellow fisherman — woke him with a boot to his back.

His elder brother, Rambik, 27, who had been working on the same boat, tried to console Veera, who said he longed to return to his father and sisters back in India. "Don't worry. We'll all go back home," said Rambik.

But precedent suggests it could take a while.

Some 900 Indian fishermen are held in Pakistan, most in a jail on the outskirts of Karachi, the country's main port. Many have been detained for 12 months or more. During tenser political times, fishermen have languished in jail for years. About 100 Pakistani fishermen are held in India.

Despite improved relations, the two countries have been slow to make good on an agreement last year to set up a hot line between their coast guards to share information about arrests and expedite releases.

Maritime Security Agency spokesman Khawar Hasan Khan said Pakistan was seizing Indian vessels and their crews every other week. He claimed employers were pushing Indian fishermen to venture into rich Pakistani waters because the Indian government has restricted fishing in its own waters to replenish marine stocks.

"They intentionally violate our territorial waters just to fill their boats," he said.

Yet fishermen from both sides say boats lack navigational tools to let them know when they've crossed the poorly marked frontier — still subject to a bilateral dispute, dating to the 1965 war between the countries.

"We can assess the depth of the sea. We can forecast hurricanes, but small boats lack the gadgets to distinguish sea frontiers," said Mangun Dahya, one of the Indians arrested last week.

The Pakistan Fishermen Cooperative Society is calling for both countries to equip vessels with satellite technology that could give fishermen a fix on their whereabouts.

"They usually have a compass to ascertain direction, but the rest depends on the expertise of captain of the boat," said the society's Usman Lalwani.

Khan, nevertheless, described most border violations as intentional. He said Pakistan was lenient on boats straying 10 to 15 miles into its waters, but claimed Indian vessels often sailed much deeper into Pakistan's realm in groups of 15 to 20, staying in touch with each other using hand phones and wireless systems.

Pakistan Interior Ministry spokesman Ismail Hassan Niazi played down speculation the latest detentions were a sign of bilateral tension — nearly a year after leaders of the nuclear rivals initiated peace talks aimed at resolving five decades of hostility.

"This has always been happening. It's not an indication of slowing down of the peace process," he said.

In goodwill gestures, Pakistan last year freed hundreds of Indian fishermen, and India reciprocated. In June, they agreed to release the rest. Bureaucratic inertia and mutual suspicions mean that many remain behind bars.

Officials in New Delhi said their government would be ready to release the 108 Pakistani fishermen still held in India if Islamabad made a similar move. They put the number of Indian fishermen jailed in Pakistan at only around 200. It wasn't clear why the number reported by Pakistani authorities was at least four times higher.

The Indian fishermen in the Karachi jail fear their plight is being forgotten as India and Pakistan struggle to end their key territorial dispute over Kashmir — the cause of two wars between them.

An Indian in his early 40s who has spent 14 months in jail and gave his name only as Mandan said the fishermen cite Hinduism's holy book every morning "and pray that the government should remember us and not just discuss Kashmir."