Nuclear-armed rivals India and Pakistan began historic meetings Monday aimed at preparing the way for a sustained peace dialogue on Kashmir (search) and other disputes that have kept the neighbors at loggerheads for decades.

Pakistan is keen to show quick progress during the three days of talks, which also are likely to cover confidence-building measures in the nuclear field to avoid an accident — especially considering admissions of leaks of nuclear technology by the father of Pakistan's nuclear program.

Jalil Abbas Jilani, a director-general in Pakistan's Foreign Ministry, and Arun Kumar Singh, a joint secretary in India's External Affairs Ministry, shook hands and smiled before the start of the meeting.

Singh is leading a four-member Indian team at the talks, the first real test of the two sides' willingness to show flexibility on long-entrenched positions, such as the disputed Kashmir region — the cause of two of the countries' three wars since their 1947 independence.

A "line of control" divides Kashmir between India (searchand Pakistan, but both claim the territory in its entirety. More than 65,000 people have been killed in an insurgency that has raged in India-controlled portions of the territory since 1989.

In the latest violence, suspected separatist rebels shot and killed a local politician from the ruling Peoples Democratic Party and one of his bodyguards Monday as they stood on a roadside in Srinagar, the main city in the Indian portion of Kashmir. Another bodyguard was in critical condition.

After coming close to fighting a fourth war in 2002, India and Pakistan (search) have moved to restore transport links and diplomatic ties. Soldiers in November halted cross-border firing in Kashmir.

India is also set to embark on its first cricket tour of Pakistan since 1989 — a breakthrough for the two cricket-crazy nations.

"Pakistan is approaching these talks sincerely and earnestly. We hope that India would demonstrate matching reciprocity," Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokesman Masood Khan said Sunday.

The two sides are likely to set up expert groups to discuss a dispute over the flow of water to Pakistan from the Wullar barrage in India's Jammu-Kashmir state and fighting at the world's highest battle ground in Siachen, a glacier located 18,000 feet high in the Himalayan territory.

With national elections due in India in April, no major decisions are expected by Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's government during this round of talks. However, Vajpayee is expected to stay in power and pursue the peace process.

"We are going to start the process (of negotiations) ... that will mean looking into modalities for the dialogue process and see what meetings should be organized in the next few months to keep up the dialogue on a sustained basis," Indian Foreign Secretary Shashank, who uses only one name, told Press Trust of India in New Delhi.

Singh, who arrived Sunday in Pakistan, was to hold talks with his Pakistani counterpart Monday and Tuesday to map out a plan for future dialogue.

The talks are to be wrapped up by Shashank during a meeting Wednesday with Pakistani Foreign Secretary Riaz Khokar. The officials are the most senior in their ministries below the foreign ministers.

The "composite dialogue" between the countries was first agreed to in 1997 and reaffirmed by Vajpayee and Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf during a January meeting in Islamabad on the fringes of a regional summit.

Vajpayee agreed to discuss Kashmir while Musharraf promised not to support terrorism in Pakistani territory directed against India.

India accuses Pakistan of training and arming Islamic guerrillas fighting for Kashmir's independence from India or its merger with Pakistan, a charge Pakistan denies.