Old rivals India and Pakistan resume peace process

Top Indian and Pakistani Foreign Ministry officials met on Tuesday to review their four-year-old peace process that has stalled since domestic political turmoil erupted in Pakistan last year.

The nuclear-armed rivals’ foreign secretaries’ meeting will be followed on Wednesday by talks between Indian External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee and his Pakistani counterpart, Shah Mehmood Qureshi.

It is the first contact India has had with leaders of a new Pakistani civilian government and analysts in both Pakistan and India said Mukherjee will be sounding out Pakistan’s new leaders.

The top civil servants and ministers will discuss their so-called composite dialogue, which covers eight areas including the divided Himalayan region of Kashmir, border disputes, terrorism and drugs and economic cooperation.

No major breakthroughs are expected on their main dispute over Kashmir, but Pakistani analysts hope the talks might set the stage for a visit by Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

On Tuesday, Pakistan said it was releasing nearly 100 Indians in its custody to mark the talks.

”On the occasion of the Indian foreign minister’s visit, [we] are pleased to announce the release of 96 Indian fishermen as a goodwill gesture,” an Interior Ministry official said, adding three other civilians would be among those freed on Saturday.

Indian fishermen frequently stray into Pakistani territory and can end up spending years in jail there.

The neighbours launched peace efforts in 2004 after nearly going to war a fourth time over Islamist militant attacks in India linked to a nearly 20-year revolt, which Pakistan sympathises with, against Indian rule in Kashmir.

While ties have warmed, the two sides have made no significant progress on their dispute over the Muslim-majority region they both claim.

Clashes on their Kashmir border this month, including firing on Monday that India said killed one of its soldiers, have underscored just how tenuous the improvement in relations is.

But India did not accuse Pakistan of links to bombs last week in the city of Jaipur that killed 63 people, which Pakistani analysts said was a sign of maturity in their relations.

Kashmir deadlock

Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf has been the architect of Indian policy since he seized power in a 1999 military coup, but February elections brought in a civilian government led by the party of assassinated former prime minister Benazir Bhutto.

Musharraf made a range of ground-breaking proposals to end the Kashmir deadlock that has bedevilled ties since the countries’ independence in 1947.

He offered to give up demands for a plebiscite in Kashmir, as enshrined in United Nations resolutions, if India agreed to autonomy in its part of Kashmir, in effect giving up Pakistan’s claim to the entire region.

But in March last year, Musharraf was engulfed in a political crisis when he tried to dismiss the country’s top judge, distracting attention from India and giving it an excuse to stall, Pakistani analysts say.

Some Pakistani critics say Musharraf made too many concessions and the new government should pull back. At the same time, India is under no pressure to make concessions on Kashmir.

But before the lull in peace efforts, the two sides made some progress on border disputes, one over the Siachen glacier high in the Himalayas, the other in the far south, over the Sir Creek on their maritime boundary.

India is also likely to want to know the stand on terrorism of a Pakistani government hoping a peace pact can end violence by al-Qaeda-linked militants on its Afghan border. — Reuters

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