Indian leader visits Pakistan in attempt to end era of conflict

New nuclear powers each covet Kashmir

February 21, 1999|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

WAGAH, Pakistan -- A golden bus crossed from India to Pakistan yesterday bearing an old rival and the hopes of a subcontinent tired of war.

Prime Minster Atal Bihari Vajpayee rode in from India to meet his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif, spurring talk that a trans-border bus route might open a new era of friendliness between the historic enemies.

Vajpayee and Sharif planned two days of meetings aimed at bridging the differences between the world's two newest nuclear-armed states. The Indian prime minister's foray across the border unfolded amid pageantry, turning an ordinarily hostile border post into a platform for peacemaking.

Pakistan's turbaned border guards threw open Wagah's iron gates, a band began to play, and the two prime ministers embraced as Vajpayee stepped onto Pakistani soil.

"I bring the goodwill and hopes of my fellow Indians," Vajpayee told a crowd. "Together let us make a new beginning."

Then the two men, whose impoverished countries make up one-fifth of the world's population, strolled together on a red carpet to a helicopter that carried them to the nearby city of Lahore.

The summit marks a hopeful turn in relations between India and Pakistan, which were carved along religious lines on the subcontinent as the British Empire withdrew 51 years ago.

Partition resulted in 1 million deaths and forced 10 million from their homes. The two countries -- predominantly Muslim Pakistan and mostly Hindu India -- have fought three wars. They still clash along a disputed border in the Kashmir region.

The wellspring of the conflict is Kashmir, a predominantly Muslim region that spans both countries in the Himalayas.

Both India and Pakistan claim Kashmir, and their soldiers face off along a 450-mile border dubbed the Line of Control.

Pakistan supports an armed insurgency in Kashmir, and the Indian army brutally represses it. More than 10,000 people have died in the past decade.

What was a conflict given little attention outside Asia catapulted onto the international scene in May when India carried out five underground nuclear explosions. Pakistan followed with tests of its own, and South Asia suddenly became one of the world's most likely nuclear battlefields.

The United States and other countries slapped economic sanctions on India and Pakistan, and both have come under intense pressure to settle their differences.

Few people in either country expect that to happen this weekend. Indian and Pakistani politicians, trying to keep expectations low, say it is miracle enough that the two sides are talking at all.

No Indian leader had visited Pakistan in 10 years. Before yesterday, Vajpayee and Sharif had met -- briefly -- only on two occasions, the first of which, in Sri Lanka in July, broke off amid icy glares.

"We are not shooting at each other; we are not shouting at each other," Pakistani Information Minister Mushahid Hussain said. "That's success."

Pub Date: 2/21/99

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