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India and Pakistan to Resume Relations

May 03, 2003|Chris Kraul and Mubashir Zaidi | Special to The Times

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Nuclear-armed neighbors India and Pakistan agreed Friday to resume diplomatic relations after a two-year rupture and to enter talks aimed at ending the bitter divisions that have brought them to the verge of war several times.

In New Delhi, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee told the Indian Parliament on Friday that he was sending an ambassador to the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, in hopes of leaving a legacy of peace to his nation. The 78-year-old Vajpayee, who initiated the peace moves, also said civil aviation between the two nations would be resumed.

"Talks this time will be decisive," Vajpayee told lawmakers. "At least in my lifetime, this is the last time I will be making an attempt to resolve the India-Pakistan dispute."

The prime minister added that India is committed to the improvement of relations and prepared to seize every opportunity to bring it about.

Pakistan hailed the gesture, saying that it would reciprocate by sending an ambassador to New Delhi and that a meeting between Vajpayee and Pakistani Prime Minister Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali would be held soon. The time and place of the meeting had not been decided.

"We welcome Prime Minister Vajpayee's announcement in the Indian Parliament today," Pakistan's foreign minister, Mian Khursheed Mehmood Kasuri, said in a statement.

Pakistani Information Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed said Friday that his government would announce several measures in coming days to reciprocate for the Indian moves.

The United States, which has been working quietly behind the scenes to persuade the two countries to renew a dialogue, also welcomed India's overture.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell heralded it as a hopeful sign, particularly in light of U.S. fears that the spring thaw in the Himalayas might reignite extremist activities in the disputed Kashmir region and spark a new cycle of tension between the long-standing rivals.

"All this is very, very promising," Powell told reporters on a brief stop in Albania on Friday en route to the Middle East, noting that the moves appeared "at a time when people were beginning to wonder whether or not we were going back up on the slope of potential conflict, a conflict of the kind we feared last year."

India's offer came ahead of a trip to the region next week by Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage, who has often served as a troubleshooter in South Asia.

India and Pakistan have fought three wars and been enemies for most of the half a century since predominantly Muslim Pakistan was partitioned from predominantly Hindu India after independence from Britain in 1947. Both countries successfully tested nuclear bombs in 1998, and the world held its breath in fear that a nuclear conflagration would break out.

In recent years, the main bone of contention between the rivals has been the division of the northern Indian province of Jammu and Kashmir. Pakistan has long held that the 1947 partition of the Kashmir region shortchanged the mostly Muslim residents. Kashmir has been the scene of near-constant Hindu-Muslim violence, much of it prompted by Pakistani guerrillas.

In December 2001, terrorists assaulted the Indian Parliament. Fourteen people were killed, including the five assailants, in the attack that India blamed on two extremist groups, Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed. It led to each nation's stationing hundreds of thousands of troops along their shared border. The countries also broke off diplomatic relations and closed all direct rail and air links.

Pakistan denied any involvement in the attack, but President Pervez Musharraf subsequently banned both groups.

Vajpayee apparently broke the ice in the latest freeze between the neighbors with a speech in Kashmir on April 18, when he said he would once again extend a hand of friendship to Pakistan. He and Jamali had a telephone conversation this week during which Jamali invited his counterpart to tour Pakistan.

Vajpayee could face domestic opposition to any initiative that casts India as overly conciliatory or weak. He did not answer questions in Parliament about whether his move constituted a policy shift in light of a previous pledge he made not to hold talks until terrorist attacks in Kashmir ended.

"Terrorism is continuing," Vajpayee told lawmakers. "Anything can happen any time. We want to give another chance to peace, and with self-respect, not weakness."

This is Vajpayee's third attempt at improving relations with Pakistan. In 1999, he traveled to the Pakistani city of Lahore to meet with then-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, a visit that stirred outrage in the Pakistani army and helped provoke a coup that brought Musharraf to power.

Months afterward, Pakistani troops took up positions in the Kargil area of Kashmir, which is claimed by India, causing another clash. Vajpayee invited Musharraf to talks in the Taj Mahal city of Agra in July 2001, but the two men reportedly did not get along well and there were no breakthroughs.

*

Times staff writer Kraul reported from Kabul, Afghanistan, and special correspondent Zaidi from Islamabad. Staff writer Robin Wright in Damascus, Syria, and Shankhadeep Choudhury in The Times' New Delhi Bureau contributed to this report.

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