ISLAMABAD  -    Pakistan will release 360 Indian prisoners as a goodwill gesture amid the persistent tension between the two nuclear armed neighbours.

Speaking at a weekly news briefing here, Foreign Office spokesperson Dr Mohammed Faisal said the prisoners will be freed in phases within April. “The first batch will be released on April 8. There are a total of 537 Indian prisoners in Pakistani jails,” he said.

Faisal said Pakistan had been taking positive steps over the years to improve Pak-India ties without any response from India. Tensions between Pakistan and India have been high since the killing of a Kashmiri freedom fighter, Burhan Wani, in July 2016. The attack on Indian forces in September 2016 - that killed 19 soldiers in Uri area of held Kashmir - further heightened the tensions. India also claimed it had carried a “surgical strike” to avenge the Uri attack. Pakistan rejected the Indian assertion.

In February, India accused Pakistan of backing the Pulwama attack that killed more than 40 Indian soldiers. The latest confrontation erupted after the suicide bombing on February 14. The attack was allegedly claimed by Jaish-e-Mohammed. Pakistan denied any link.

In January, Pakistan and India shared a list of prisoners lodged in jails as per the provisions of a bilateral agreement.  The step was taken under the Consular Access Agreement of May 21, 2008 between Pakistan and India.

According to the agreement, both countries are required to exchange lists of prisoners in each other’s custody twice a year, on January 1 and July 1.  The two countries have adhered to the practice of exchanging the list of prisoners despite recurring tensions.

Fishermen from Pakistan and India are frequently detained for illegally fishing in each other’s territorial waters since the Arabian Sea does not have a clearly defined marine border and the wooden boats lack the technology to avoid being drifting away.

Dr Faisal said that 483 fishermen and 54 civilians were in the Pakistani jails. The spokesperson said 100 fishermen will be released on April 8 with another batch of 100 fishermen on April 15.

This will be followed by release of additional 100 fishermen on April 22.  Dr Faisal said the last batch of 60 Indian prisoners, comprising five fishermen and 55 civilians, will be set free on April 29.

Faisal said 347 Pakistani prisoners were incarcerated in Indian jails, which comprise 249 civilians and 98 fishermen. He expressed optimism that India will reciprocate Pakistan’s goodwill gesture.

The foreign office spokesperson regretted that India postponed the Kartapur meeting without any reason this week which was crucial in moving forward.

He said Indian side had expressed willingness to attend a technical level meeting on the issue on April 15 and 16, which will hopefully set the pace for further talks. He reiterated Pakistan’s commitment that it will complete its side of Kartarpur Corridor before the 550th birth anniversary of Baba Guru Nanak later this year.

To a question, the Foreign Office spokesperson said that Pakistan will never accept the repeal of Article 370 of the Indian constitution which guarantees special status for Jammu and Kashmir.

He said Kashmiri people will also not allow this to happen ever. Besides violating the rights of Kashmiris, it will also contravene the relevant UNSC resolutions. Dr Faisal said the issue of Indian spy Kulbhushan Jadhav was in international court of justice. He said India had yet to give any reply to our question of Jadhav’s passport. Asked about the US approval of selling anti-submarine helicopters to India, the spokesperson said it was an alarming development. “This move will accelerate arms race in the region. Pakistan wants to work for peace but it is not oblivious to its defense either,” he added.