NEW DELHI (AFP) – Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh confirmed Wednesday he will meet his Pakistani counterpart this weekend in a major step towards better relations following rising tensions.
Singh said he will hold talks with Nawaz Sharif on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, the first such meeting in three years, amid heightened friction over a string of deadly military attacks across their border in disputed Kashmir.
"During my visit to New York, I... look forward to bilateral meetings with the leaders of some of our neighbouring countries, including Bangladesh, Nepal and Pakistan," Singh said in a statement before leaving for the United States.
Singh will first head to Washington to meet President Barack Obama to try to strengthen economic ties between the two world's largest democracies including on nuclear power, before leaving for New York.
"Over the past decade, our relationship with the United States, which is one of our most important relationships, has transformed into a global strategic partnership," his statement said.
New Delhi and Islamabad have been working behind the scenes in recent weeks to secure a meeting, which was in jeopardy after deadly skirmishes in recent weeks between their militaries. The attacks repeatedly broke a ceasefire in place since 2003 along the de facto border in Kashmir.
The picturesque Himalayan region is divided between India and Pakistan by the UN-monitored Line of Control (LoC), but is claimed in full by both countries. Two of their three wars have been fought over Kashmir.
The deadly flare-ups followed an ambush in August that killed five Indian soldiers along the LoC. India blamed the Pakistan army for the attack, a charge that Islamabad denied.
Since winning a general election in May, Sharif has been vocal in his desire for better relations with India. Last month he urged both sides to work swiftly to shore up the 10-year ceasefire after India's defence minister hinted at stronger military action along the LoC.
Analyst K. G. Suresh said the incidents in Kashmir, along with attacks by Pakistani militants on Indian soil, were among issues expected to be raised at the meeting -- set to be held at a New York hotel on Sunday.
But Suresh told AFP that talk of a resumption of peace talks as a direct result of the meeting was premature. The talks were halted in January, shortly after they had resumed, following a deadly flare-up at that time along the LoC.
"The meeting is definitely a huge step forward (to improved relations)," said Suresh of the Vivekanand International Foundation think-tank.
"The Indian PM has taken a calculated risk by agreeing to meet Sharif ahead of elections next year," he added.
India's embattled ruling Congress party faces national elections next year and is under domestic pressure not to be seen as too soft on Pakistan.
The premiers of India and Pakistan last met in 2010 on the sidelines of a regional summit in Bhutan's capital Thimphu, with both sides reaffirming the importance of moving forward with dialogue.
Peace talks were suspended for three years after the 2008 attacks in Mumbai which killed 166 people and which India blamed on Pakistani militants. India has been demanding that Pakistan speed up trials for militants on its side thought to have been behind the attacks.