ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – India's prime minister called for an end to bloodshed between Pakistan (search) and India (search) in a statement read Sunday before a peace conference in the Pakistani capital, saying the two nations must heed the will of their peoples and learn to live side by side.
"Violence and bloodshed cannot provide any solutions. We can live together only if we let each other live," Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee (search) said in the statement, read aloud by an Indian delegate at the conference. "Cooperation, rather than confrontation, is the answer to our common problems."
The conference, organized by a prominent journalists' group with branches in both countries, is the latest effort to ease tensions between the nuclear-armed neighbors. It brings together Indian and Pakistani parliamentarians for two days of talks at Islamabad's Marriott hotel.
The 59-member Indian delegation — 33 lawmakers and 26 journalists — crossed the Indian-Pakistani border on Saturday afternoon, receiving a warm welcome from Pakistani political parties and human rights workers, who shouted slogans of peace and showered them with rose petals.
On Sunday, Pakistani and Indian parliamentarians sat facing each other in a brightly lit ballroom at the hotel, each taking turns speaking about their nations' future.
As some gave speeches, others exchanged pleasantries over cups of tea. Some Sikhs on the Indian side had flowing beards, while leaders of a Pakistani religious alliance wore Islamic turbans.
"We have come here with a message of love and brotherhood," Indian lawmaker Laloo Prasad Yadav said in a speech. "Everyone should play their role in tearing down the wall of hatred."
After the opening session, the meetings were closed to reporters.
During the conference, the delegates will encourage both governments to resume stalled peace talks. They will also discuss Kashmir (search), a divided Himalayan region that both India and Pakistan claim in its entirety.
Vajpayee said in the statement, written from the Indian capital of New Delhi, that the conference provided hope for the future.
"The meeting and the themes for discussion are a forceful reiteration of the popular desire in both of our countries for a normal, peaceful, friendly and cooperative relationship," he said. "We cannot deny our people their right to peaceful and cooperative economic development."
M. Ziauddin, the Pakistani president of the South Asia Free Media Association (search), which organized the conference, said he hoped it would serve to bring better understanding.
"These are exciting times for Pakistan and India. There is a peace process going on and I hope this conference provides participants the right kind of atmosphere to air their ideas and thoughts without inhibitions," he said.
The two nations have fought three wars since gaining independence from Britain in 1947, two of them over Kashmir. They were on the brink of a fourth war last year after a Dec. 13, 2001, attack on the Indian parliament. New Delhi blamed the assault on two Pakistani-based militant groups and Pakistan's spy agency.
Pakistan outlawed the militant groups but denied involvement.
Both countries rushed hundreds of thousands of troops to the border, but international mediation ended the crisis. Relations have improved in recent months, since a call by Vajpayee (search) for renewed peace talks. India and Pakistan have restored diplomatic ties and resumed bus links.
The two countries are also discussing re-establishing air and train links.
Still, progress has been slow and no dates for formal peace talks to begin has been announced. Politicians on both sides have continued to fire off inflammatory statements from time to time.
The issue of Kashmir remains a thorny one, and is not likely to be solved anytime soon. More than 63,000 people have died in Kashmir since 1989.
Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, the head of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Q party (search), said that any peace talks must include the issue of Kashmir, and noted that progress on other fronts would lack substance if the flashpoint issue is not addressed.