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India, Pakistan begin Kashmir talks
Updated: 2004-02-17 10:07

India and Pakistan held their first peace talks in 2 1/2 years Monday, praising a "new momentum" and working on a timetable to resolve decades of conflict between the nuclear-armed neighbors over Kashmir, terrorism and other issues.

As the two countries back down from the brink of their fourth war in 2002, the three-day talks are to lay the groundwork for ending a half-century of tension since their 1947 partition.

"There is realization in India and Pakistan that war is not an option, that you have to look at ways to find a peaceful resolution of the outstanding disputes between the two countries," Pakistani spokesman Masood Khan said after a meeting between Foreign Ministry officials of the two countries.

"There's new momentum; this momentum must be maintained," he said.

The two sides discussed dates for future talks, and a formal timetable was expected to be decided over the next two days. The talks include discussions on eight issues, including Kashmir, confidence-building measures in the nuclear field, terrorism and drugs, economic cooperation and a river dispute.

"I am quite optimistic over the outcome of this round of talks," Yashwant Sinha, the Indian foreign minister, said in New Delhi.

The rapprochement was started by Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who agreed to resume the dialogue last month. A July 2001 summit in Agra, India failed to make any progress.

Jalil Abbas Jilani, a director-general in Pakistan's Foreign Ministry, and Arun Kumar Singh, a joint secretary in India's External Affairs Ministry, shook hands and smiled before the start of the Monday meeting. The talks run through Wednesday, culminating in a face-to-face between the countries' foreign secretaries.

The talks represent the first real test of flexibility on long-entrenched positions, such as the disputed Kashmir region — the cause of two of the countries' three wars since their 1947 independence from Britain.

A cease-fire line divides Kashmir between India and Pakistan, but both claim the territory in its entirety. More than 65,000 people have been killed in an insurgency that has raged in Indian-controlled portions of the territory since 1989.

The agenda for resolving decades of enmity was first agreed to in 1997 but failed to make any headway.

"Since a lot of work has already been done in the past years, it will not be difficult for us to reach a conclusion," Sinha said.

In January, Vajpayee agreed to discuss Kashmir while Musharraf promised not to support terrorism in Pakistani territory directed against India. India accuses Pakistan of training and arming Islamic guerrillas fighting for Kashmir's independence from India or its merger with Pakistan, a charge Pakistan denies.

Early this month, Indian Defense Minister George Fernandes said Pakistan's government has taken effective measures against Islamic militant groups based in Pakistan, leading to a decline in incursions into Indian-controlled Kashmir.

In the latest violence, suspected rebels shot and killed a local politician Monday as he stood on a roadside in Srinagar, the summer capital of India's Jammu-Kashmir state, police said.

Two police officers nearby raced to the scene and opened fire on the assailants. One officer was killed and the other wounded as the attackers retaliated before escaping.

Meanwhile, in Muzaffarabad, capital of Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, more than 500 people Monday from a political group seeking Kashmir's independence blocked a main street for nearly two hours to protest the Pakistan-India talks.

"These negotiations are being held to end the Kashmiris' struggle," said Ghulam Nabi War, a Jammu-Kashmir Liberation Front leader. "The two countries are not interested in people of Kashmir. They don't respect their wishes."

After coming close to fighting a fourth war in 2002, India and Pakistan have moved to restore transportation links and diplomatic ties. Soldiers in November halted cross-border firing in Kashmir.

India is also set to embark on its first cricket tour of Pakistan since 1989 — a breakthrough for the two cricket-crazy nations.

With Indian elections due in April, no major decisions are expected by Vajpayee's government during this round of talks. However, Vajpayee is expected to stay in power and pursue the peace process.

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