33 Indian prisoners handed over by Pak

Lahore: Pakistani authorities today handed over 33 prisoners, including a fisherman suffering from cancer, to Indian authorities following their release as a goodwill gesture. Pakistan Rangers personnel handed over the prisoners, including a total of 26 fishermen, at the Wagah land border even as a new Indian integrated customs check post was inaugurated to boost trade between the two countries.

The prisoners had been jailed on charges of illegally entering Pakistani territory or crossing the maritime boundary. Pakistan Rangers spokesman Mahboob Husain said they had been handed over to the Border Security Force. Samant Lakshman Bambhaniya, the fisherman suffering from bone cancer, was airlifted from Karachi to Lahore and then driven to the border in an ambulance.

The other prisoners travelled to the border separately, officials said. Pakistani authorities had initially said 34 prisoners would be freed today but one of the men was not released. The reason for this could not immediately be ascertained. The release of the prisoners came less than a week after President Asif Ali Zardari made a day-long private visit to India, where he met Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and offered prayers at a Sufi shrine in Ajmer.

The Indian fishermen were being held at Malir Jail in Karachi, the capital of Sindh province. Officials said over 423 Indian fishermen were still in Malir Jail while some 150 Pakistani fishermen are reportedly in Indian prisons. Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum chief Muhammad Ali Shah said both countries should declare a 100-mile buffer zone ? comprising 50 miles on each side of the maritime boundary ? and jointly issue identity cards to fishermen so that they could fish without fear of being arrested.

He claimed India had agreements with Bangladesh and Sri Lanka whereby fishermen from these countries were stopped on crossing the boundary, their catch seized and then allowed to return. "Pakistan and India should have a similar agreement to benefit fishermen of both sides," Shah said.