NEW DELHI, India – Taking a hopeful step toward ending a standoff between their nuclear-armed militaries, India (search) and Pakistan agreed Friday to hold talks on settling a half century of disputes that have drawn them into three wars.
The opening comes ahead of a visit to the region by U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, and both sides indicated the trip helped bring them together.
Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee (search), who is 78 and ailing, suggested he wanted to cap his career with a peace agreement.
"This round of talks will be decisive, and at least for my life, these will be the last," he told India's Parliament.
In a first step, Vajpayee announced he was sending an envoy to Pakistan (search) and was ready to resume air links.
Pakistan also said it wanted to hold talks and restore ambassador-level relations severed in late 2001, but it did not respond immediately to the offer to again allow landing and overflight rights for civilian airliners.
"Things are moving very fast," Pakistan's information minister, Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, said in Islamabad. "Soon both prime ministers are going to see each other."
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell called the renewed contacts "very, very promising."
The two countries massed troops on the border and went on war alert last year after India blamed Pakistan for a December 2001 attack by Islamic militants on India's Parliament. Pakistan denied involvement. Tensions eased some after intense diplomacy by the United States and Britain.
The main source of friction is Kashmir, a Himalayan region divided between them and claimed by both in its entirety. Pakistan and India have fought two of their three wars over the region since their independence from Britain in 1947.
"We are committed to the improvement of relations with Pakistan and we are willing to grasp every opportunity for doing so," Vajpayee told Indian lawmakers.
Vajpayee's speech came four days after Pakistani Prime Minister Zafarullah Khan Jamali telephoned him in the first such high-level contact in almost two years, and a week before Armitage's visit.
Impending visits by U.S. officials have often led to sudden improvement in rhetoric as the rival nations try to avoid being criticized by Washington.
A Pakistani government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, called Armitage's trip "very important in this whole process" of reconciliation. Pakistan, a key U.S. ally in the war on terrorism, has repeatedly sought international mediation and U.N. intervention in the conflict over Kashmir.
Vajpayee has rejected mediation, in particular from Washington. Many Indians fear U.S. power, and worry that now that the Iraq war has ended, the United States will nose into South Asia in a way detrimental to India. Some Parliament members expressed fears the United States might have a "road map for Kashmir," alluding to its plans for the Middle East and Iraq.
The fear comes from decades of unfriendly relations when India and the United States were on opposite sides during the Cold War.
"What has changed that has forced us to extend a hand of friendship?" Vajpayee asked Parliament. "The international situation has changed. The world is standing on one axis. ... There should be different sources of power in the world. One key should not turn the world."
For Washington, movement toward a Kashmir settlement would be in keeping with its push to settle volatile conflicts that have been the source of recruitment for militant Muslims.
"All this is very, very promising," said Powell, "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."
Kashmir militants welcomed the diplomatic thaw but showed no sign of moderating their demands for Indian withdrawal or of calling a cease-fire. "We think talks and armed struggle can go side-by-side," said Salim Hashmi, a spokesman for the largest militant group, Hezb-ul Mujahedeen.
In a marked departure from his previous statements on the subject, Vajpayee said it was possible that all the Kashmiri militants are not under Pakistan's control, a position that allows him to talk with Jamali.
"What Pakistan's prime minister told me on the phone has given me hope," Vajpayee said.
Vajpayee may have more initial success talking to Jamali about economic cooperation and restoration of travel and culture links — setting the stage for the more difficult Kashmir issue — than he would have with Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf.
Those two haven't spoken since Vajpayee snubbed Musharraf at a South Asian nations summit in January 2002. Although he will most likely eventually have to deal with Musharraf, Vajpayee has said repeatedly he doesn't trust the Pakistani leader and considers him a sponsor of terrorism.
In 1999, Vajpayee traveled to Lahore to meet with then-Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, but a few months later the two nations were involved in what India calls the Kargil War in the mountains of Kashmir. Vajpayee invited Musharraf to talks in the Taj Mahal city of Agra in July 2001. There were no agreements, and in December 2001 came the Parliament attack that severed relations.
"This is a new beginning," Vajpayee said. "We don't want to forget the past, but we don't want to remain slaves of the past."