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Pakistan, India leaders vow to seek peace
Updated: 2004-09-25 10:48

The new Indian prime minister met with his Pakistani counterpart Friday in New York for the first time and the two men promised to work together to gradually ease tensions between their nations and explore a peaceful settlement for the disputed Kashmir region.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India and the president of Pakistan, General Pervez Musharraf, who stood side by side after an hourlong meeting at a hotel in New York City, also discussed the possibility of running a natural gas pipeline between their nations.

A dialogue between the two countries started in January when Musharraf met with Singh's predecessor, Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

"I sincerely believe that today is an historic day. We have made a new beginning," Singh, who took power in May, said after Friday's meeting, which was held on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly session.

The Indian leader also expressed confidence that, "despite the difficulties on the way," he and Musharraf would "succeed in writing a new chapter in the history of our people."

In a joint statement, the leaders reiterated their commitment to continue talks "to restore normalcy and cooperation" and implement confidence-building measures between their nations.

They also agreed that "possible options for a peaceful, negotiated settlement" of their dispute over the divided Himalayan territory of Kashmir "should be explored in a sincere spirit and purposeful manner."

Since both countries gained independence from Britain in 1947, they have fought two of their three wars over Kashmir, which is split between them and divided by a 1972 cease-fire line called the Line of Control.

India's portion, Jammu-Kashmir, is the only Muslim state in largely Hindu India and has been wracked since 1989 by an insurrection by Islamic separatists who want independence or a union with Pakistan. The conflict has left at least 63,000 dead, most of them civilians, since 1989, and India has accused Pakistan of supporting the rebels.

Musharraf and Singh, India's first Sikh prime minister, shared a warm handshake before going into a one-on-one meeting, followed by a session with their full delegations.

The talks were being held "in a very friendly atmosphere," said the Pakistani information minister, Shaikh Rashid Ahmed.

The United States, which spearheaded diplomatic efforts that brought the two countries back from the brink of a fresh conflict in 2002, said Thursday that the two leaders had to confront "serious outstanding issues" in their efforts to improve relations.

"We are very encouraged that we now have open, honest, candid discussion between the two sides on these very complex issues," Secretary of State Colin Powell told reporters.

Musharraf, an important U.S. ally in the war on terror, said Thursday that India and Pakistan must resolve their differences because they were the two major countries in the area and their enmity made the entire South Asian region suffer.

"Someone once said, 'When two elephants fight, the grass gets trampled,' and we are trampling the whole grass everywhere around," he said. In a joint statement, Musharraf and Singh said the proposed gas pipeline, "could contribute to the welfare and prosperity of the people of both countries."

But on the eve of the talks, four Islamic militants were killed in a clash with Indian troops in Kashmir.

India is adamant that peace talks should follow an incremental path, covering all issues of bilateral contention rather than concentrating solely on Kashmir. While stressing the need to build some momentum, Musharraf on Thursday also warned against allowing the talks to buckle under the weight of short-term expectations. He scoffed at a question about negotiating without focusing on a solution to Kashmir.

"Let's not sideline an issue which is a core," he said. "We cannot do that.

"We kill each other every day on the Line of Control. We are two angry countries. Let's resolve the cause of that anger, and then we can proceed on normalization everywhere."

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