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Chinese mainland, Taiwan start direct transport, mail services

  BEIJING, Dec. 15 (Xinhua) -- The Chinese mainland and Taiwan started direct air and sea transport and postal services on Monday morning, a historical step in cross-strait relations since the two sides split in civil war in 1949.

  Formerly, air and sea movements -- including mail -- had to go by way of a third place.

  At 8:00 a.m., a China Eastern Airlines passenger flight took off from the Shanghai Pudong International Airport for Taipei. Six minutes later, a Taiwan-based TransAsia Airways jetliner left Taipei for Shanghai.

  The flight time from Shanghai to Taipei has been cut by more than one hour, to 80 minutes, as planes are no longer required to fly through Hong Kong's airspace, a detour that the Taiwan authorities formerly insisted on citing security concerns.

  The Mainland's State Council Taiwan Affairs Office Executive Deputy Director, Zhang Lizhong, said the start of direct flights marked a key step in the peaceful development of cross-Strait relations.

  "Given the global financial crisis, cross-Strait direct flights started at exactly the right time," Zheng said at a ceremony in Shanghai. Direct links "will help the mainland and Taiwan jointly overcome the current (economic) difficulty," Zheng said.

  Under a historic agreement signed by the mainland and Taiwan in early November, the two sides agreed to launch charter cargo flights between two mainland terminals, Pudong in Shanghai and Guangzhou airports, and two Taiwan terminals, Taoyuan and Kaohsiung.

  There will be 60 return cargo flights per month, evenly divided between mainland and Taiwan airlines.

  The two sides also agreed to launch regular passenger charter flights, which formerly only flew on weekends and the four major traditional festivals.

  The mainland agreed to open another 16 terminals for passenger charter flights, besides the five already opened, while Taiwan has already opened eight terminals. The number of flights will increase to 108 every week, also divided evenly, with the number to be adjusted according to demand.

  Monday also marked the start of direct shipping and postal services across the Taiwan Straits.

  Mainland resident Zheng Jian, 81, who was born in Taiwan, posted a letter to his Taiwan relatives at a ceremony on Monday morning in Beijing. A similar kick-off ceremony was held in Taipei.

  Meanwhile, mainland and Taiwan dignitaries, including State Council Taiwan Affairs Office Wang Yi and Taiwan's ruling Kuomintang Honorary Chairman Lien Chan, gathered at a port in Tianjin to celebrate the start of cross-Strait direct shipping.

  Under the agreement on direct shipping, passenger and cargo vessels owned by mainland and Taiwan companies may sail directly across the Taiwan Straits subject to official approval.

  The mainland will open 63 ports to Taiwan ships while Taiwan will open 11. The two sides might increase the number of ports based on a "developing situation," according to the agreement.