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India, Pakistan meet to finalize talks framework
Updated: 2004-02-18 15:42

Nuclear rivals India and Pakistan met Wednesday to finalize an agenda and schedule for their first peace talks since almost coming to war in 2002.

Middle-ranking foreign ministry officials said they had reached a "broad understanding" on the framework for peace talks after two days of talks ended Tuesday.

Wednesday, Pakistani Foreign Secretary Riaz Khokhar met his Indian counterpart, Shashank, who uses only one name, to iron out any remaining differences over the structure for talks, which will range from their dispute over Kashmir to nuclear security.

Essentially the neighbors aim to take up where they left off when a "composite dialogue" over eight issues ran aground in 1999 and finally collapsed at a summit in the Indian city of Agra in July 2001.

Under that formula, foreign secretaries would meet regularly to discuss the Kashmir dispute, as well as "peace and security" -- code for a range of confidence-building measures meant to reduce the risk of nuclear and conventional war.

Officials from other ministries would also tackle a range of issues, including trade and economic links, people-to-people contacts and disputes over water sharing, maritime boundaries and the Siachen Glacier, the world's highest battlefield.

Diplomats and commentators see signs that both sides genuinely want to make a fresh bid for peace and to avoid the pitfalls that have undermined previous attempts to mend their differences. But the two remain far apart in their dispute over who should control the mainly Muslim region of Kashmir, the cause of two of their three declared wars.

The EU's External Relations Commissioner Chris Patten, who was due in Islamabad Wednesday, told Reuters in Kabul he was delighted the talks had started, but urged restraint.

"I think if we're sensible, we won't get too excited and won't start expecting early or substantial breakthroughs. I think this is going to be a long process, the negotiators are dealing with some terribly difficult issues."


The two sides hope to announce a timetable for initial meetings later Wednesday, with talks on all issues likely to start within the next six months, spanning elections in India expected in April, officials said.

Pakistan also hopes to get a commitment to higher-level talks at foreign minister and summit level, to maintain the momentum generated by last month's meeting between Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee.

Pakistan has also proposed talks on a "strategic restraint regime," so that both sides maintain a minimum nuclear deterrence and avoid a costly nuclear and conventional arms race.

"That would be dealt with under the banner of peace and security," said one official, who asked not to be identified. "But the modalities have to be worked out, whether it would be at foreign secretary level or whether it would require separate meetings."

More than a million troops were massed on the border in 2002 in a tense military confrontation sparked by an attack on India's parliament that Delhi blamed on Pakistani-backed militants.

Heavy U.S. pressure helped to avert a war, and in November the two sides agreed to impose a cease-fire along the Line of Control dividing Kashmir. But mistrust runs deep.

India accuses Pakistan of supporting militants fighting its rule in Kashmir. Although it says infiltration into Kashmir from Pakistan has slowed, it says Islamabad has not dismantled what it calls the "terrorist infrastructure" within its country.

For its part India has to allay Pakistani fears that it does not see the talks as a way of sidelining the Kashmir issue, and giving it time to crush the separatist insurgency there.

Pakistan Foreign Minister Khursheed Mehmood Kasuri urged India to end rights violations in Kashmir.

"It would be in Pakistan's interest that Kashmir pacifies once the talks start and there's peace in the Valley," he told the Indian Express newspaper.

The last serious attempt to make peace was sabotaged by the Pakistani military in 1999 when it sent troops and militants across the Line of Control to occupy the icy heights of Kargil, prompting fighting which cost hundreds of lives.

Indian hard-liners were blamed for sabotaging an attempt to revive the process in 2001.

Musharraf was widely blamed for Kargil as army chief of staff at the time. These days, as president, he has restyled himself as a peacemaker who has offered to meet India half-way in an effort to end more than five decades of conflict.

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