India, Pakistan Leaders Hold Kashmir Talks

Published April 17, 2005

| Associated Press

Following a cricket match with talks aimed at improving ties, the leaders of India (search) and Pakistan agreed Sunday to set up joint committees to boost trade and explore ways to reduce the military presence on a Himalayan glacier, Indian officials said.

During their nearly two-hour meeting, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Pakistan President Gen. Pervez Musharraf (search) discussed many issues which have bedeviled relations between the two countries for decades, a top Indian official said on condition of anonymity.

Along with creating the committees, the two sides also agreed to restore a rail route linking the western Indian state of Rajasthan with Pakistan's (search) Sindh province by December, he said.

Perhaps the most significant decision was to create a joint committee to explore ways to reduce the deployment of soldiers at the Siachen Glacier in the high Himalayas, the world's highest battleground, which is claimed by both countries. Every year more troops die there from frostbite and intense cold than from combat.

Singh and Musharraf also decided to increase the frequency of the bus linking the two parts of divided Kashmir, in view of the popularity of the service and the long waiting list of people in both India and Pakistan who are eager to ride it.

The two leaders have also agreed to allow trucks to cross the border in Kashmir, a decision which should help increase trade.

Further details on the agreements would be revealed later Sunday, the official said.

Musharraf is on a three-day visit to India, during which he has already managed to watch the early parts of Sunday's nail-biting cricket match between India and Pakistan, as well as hold substantive talks with Singh aimed at taking forward a peace process begun nearly 15 months ago. He is scheduled to leave India on Monday.

Security was tight Sunday with hundreds of paramilitary soldiers guarding Hyderabad House, the stately pink sandstone mansion in the Indian capital which served as the venue for the talks.

The leaders discussed the major irritants that have beleaguered India-Pakistan relations for almost 60 years, including the bitter dispute over Kashmir — the divided Himalayan region that both countries claim, the official said.

Singh and Musharraf were also expected to discuss more confidence-building measures in Kashmir, with both sides proposing an easier flow of trade and tourist traffic, and shared responsibility for preserving the ecological wealth of the scenic mountainous province.

Musharraf, who arrived in India Saturday, said he brought with him "a message of peace," and the hope that the two neighbors could end decades of suspicion and antagonism.

"It is with a degree of optimism that we look forward to President Musharraf's visit," Indian Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran said shortly after Musharraf arrived.

"It will be an informal, relaxed visit, celebrating the cricketing bonds between the two countries and at the same time taking advantage of this opportunity to engage in a very wide-ranging and fruitful dialogue," Saran said.

Musharraf's trip comes at an ideal time, as India-Pakistan peace talks, stumbling along since early 2004, seem to have found their footing.

Earlier this month, the two countries launched the bus service across Kashmir, linking families split by decades of violence. That followed a drop in militant attacks, rapidly rising trade and such gestures as the treatment of sick Pakistani children in hospitals in India.

While there is little sign of impending breakthroughs on Kashmir, there may be a new common meeting ground.

Both sides have recently mentioned replacing the heavily militarized Line of Control that now divides Kashmir with a "soft border," which would allow for comparatively free travel and trade.

Musharraf last visited India in 2001 for a summit with then-Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. But the two leaders failed to reach any agreements, and the talks ended badly.

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