Indian, Pakistani leaders meet

Talks between Vajpayee, Musharraf last an hour

1st since failed '01 summit

January 06, 2004|By Paul Watson and Mubashir Zaidi | Paul Watson and Mubashir Zaidi,LOS ANGELES TIMES

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - India and Pakistan say they still haven't agreed to restart formal peace talks that broke down with bitter recriminations more than two years ago, despite talks yesterday between their leaders that lasted slightly more than an hour.

Officials stressed that the discussions between Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf, their first since a failed summit at the Indian town of Agra in July 2001, were a positive step toward resuming negotiations.

But, apparently wary of hard-liners in both countries who oppose major concessions over the disputed territory of Kashmir, Vajpayee and Musharraf said nothing publicly about what they discussed, or how much progress they made, at the presidential palace meeting here.

"New questions have come up, and new answers are being sought," Vajpayee told reporters in Urdu, Pakistan's national language, before his meeting with Musharraf. He said those questions require "adequate representation in each other's countries," apparently meaning diplomats have more work to do before formal talks can begin.

"The two sides have to realize each other's problems, and we have to find a way out together," the Indian leader added.

India and Pakistan have clashed over control of Kashmir since 1947, when Britain granted independence to and partitioned the subcontinent. The neighbors have fought two of their three wars over the territory, and Pakistan-based militants have been seeking independence for the Indian-controlled portion of Kashmir, or its merger with Pakistan.

Yesterday's meeting between Musharraf and Vajpayee took place during a break from a conference of leaders from the seven-nation South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation. The two leaders were joined in their talks by several top officials from both countries, including India's national security adviser, Brajesh Mishra, who met with several unidentified Pakistani officials before Vajpayee agreed to talks here.

Pakistan's Information Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed said the two leaders had detailed discussions, including about Kashmir. He said the talks were held "in a good atmosphere."

But Indian Foreign Minister Yaswant Sinha, who spoke by telephone with U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell before coming to Islamabad with Mishra for preliminary talks Thursday, was more guarded in his account of the meeting.

"Both leaders welcomed the recent steps toward the normalization of relations between the two countries, and expressed the hope that the process will continue," Sinha told reporters.

Vajpayee is expected to call national elections for May, and any substantial moves on Kashmir before then would risk alienating hard-line Hindu nationalists that Vajpayee, a moderate, counts on for crucial votes.

Refusing to disclose any details of yesterday's talks, Vajpayee's foreign minister insisted there was too much at stake to make things public now.

"We are dealing with a very sensitive issue," he said. "At this stage, anyone who is saying any more than what I have said is not doing justice to the cause."

Even the tentative signs of progress drew derision, and dire warnings, from Pakistan-based militant groups fighting Indian rule in the portion of Kashmir under New Delhi's control.

The largest militant group, the Hizbul Moujahedeen, called the Vajpayee-Musharraf meeting "a cosmetic effort to improve relations." Peace initiatives between India and Pakistan won't stop the "freedom struggle" in Kashmir, the group's leader, Syed Salahuddin, said in a telephone interview.

"The government of Pakistan ... cannot compromise on Kashmir," he added. "There will be no peace in the region until Kashmir is liberated."

A spokesman for the banned Jaish-e-Mohammed, which Pakistani investigators have linked to a failed attempt to assassinate Musharraf last month, accused Musharraf of "betraying Kashmiris."

At Agra in 2001, Musharraf sought to spell out "a structure for the process of future dialogue." It would have been a road map to peace between India and Pakistan. Musharraf also wanted an agreement, but in the end, the leaders couldn't agree on a bland communique saying they met and talked.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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