India, Pakistan officials agree on timetable for talks

`Broad understanding' expected to be final today

February 18, 2004|By Liz Sly | Liz Sly,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - India and Pakistan reached a "broad understanding" yesterday on a timetable for peace talks aimed at ending one of the world's most dangerous conflicts.

The agreement came on the second day of junior-level talks between representatives of the nuclear-armed neighbors and is expected to be finalized today by their foreign secretaries.

In a brief statement, Pakistan's Foreign Ministry said that "a broad understanding was reached for the modalities and time frame" for a dialogue, which could prove to be a long and drawn-out process.

No details were offered, but the fact that both sides are talking again, two years after they threatened to embark on a potentially devastating war, is being hailed as a milestone.

The deal was reached over lunch at the hillside resort of Murree, 30 miles from Islamabad, a setting that symbolized the increasingly cordial spirit in which exchanges between the rival nations have been taking place since January, when Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf shook hands and agreed to talk peace.

Both sides made concessions for the dialogue to start. Vajpayee agreed to put the disputed territory of Kashmir on the agenda, without insisting first that all terrorism should stop in the portion of Kashmir that India occupies. Musharraf promised to stop sponsoring terrorism in Kashmir.

The two nations, enemies since gaining independence from Britain in 1947, have much to discuss - from trade to water disputes to the risks of a nuclear conflagration. But it is the Himalayan territory of Kashmir, which they both claim and over which they have fought three wars, that lies at the heart of their hostility.

Their historic handshake was preceded by a series of confidence-building gestures that suggested both countries were tiring of the brinkmanship that has kept them in a perpetual state of near conflict for the past 57 years.

Plane and train links have been resumed and full diplomatic relations have been restored, allowing nationals of both countries to obtain visas and visit relatives on the other side of the border for the first time in years. In November, they agreed to a cease-fire along their international border and on the disputed line of control in Kashmir, silencing the guns that had made life miserable for people on both sides.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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