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India and Pakistan Hold First Formal Talks Since Mumbai Attacks


Indian Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao (left) meets with her Pakistani counterpart Salman Bashir in New Delhi.

Indian Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao (left) meets with her Pakistani counterpart Salman Bashir in New Delhi.

(RFE/RL) -- India and Pakistan have held their first formal talks in 14 months, with the top bureaucrats in the foreign ministries of both countries seeking to put a stalled four-year-old peace process back on track.

The talks in New Delhi were focused on bridging the "trust deficit" and easing tensions after terrorist attacks in Mumbai brought relations to a low in November 2008.

India froze all dialogue with Islamabad after 10 Islamist gunmen targeted multiple locations in Mumbai, killing 166 people. The Indian government blames Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba militants for the carnage.

Indian Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao said after today's meetings that a "first step" had been made toward rebuilding trust in the aftermath of the Mumbai attacks.

Rao met with Pakistan's Foreign Secretary Salman Bashir for a one-on-one meeting that lasted 90 minutes before they were joined by their delegations for further discussions.

Bashir spoke optimistically to journalists at the start of the talks, saying that Pakistan wants to discuss all issues with India, and stressing that Islamabad's main priority is to seek a settlement over the divided region of Kashmir.

"It's a pleasure for me to be back here in New Delhi," said Bashir. "Hyderabad House is a familiar venue for us, and we also look forward to a very good, constructive engagement."

India made clear that terrorism should be the single main issue for today's talks -- insisting that Islamabad must dismantle terrorist networks within its territory before dialogue can resume on Kashmir or other aspects of a four-year-old peace process.

More specifically, India wants Islamabad to take action against militants in Pakistan that it has linked to the Mumbai attacks.

New Delhi also is demanding that Islamabad deny sanctuary to anti-India militants who cross from Pakistan to carry out attacks in India and Indian-administered Kashmir.

With such arguments over today's agenda, as well as a brief exchange of fire between Indian and Pakistani border troops before the talks began, there had been few expectations of a major breakthrough.

Indian Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram told journalists he was "not very optimistic" about what he described as "talks about talks."

Indeed, some experts say the best possible result from today's meetings would be an agreement by the two countries to keep talking.

But the fact that the foreign secretaries sat down together is seen as a step forward in relations between rivals that have fought three wars against each other since 1947 -- two of them over Kashmir.

Some Kashmiris are expressing hope that today's talks eventually will bear fruit and help resolve the disputes affecting their divided region.

"Not just between India and Pakistan, but for Asia, the main problem is Kashmir," said Rashed Mufti, a resident of Srinagar, the summer capital of Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir. "Resolve Kashmir and everything else will be fine. Everything will work out in a peaceful way. But war will not get us anywhere."

But there also is skepticism from residents of the divided region -- like Sadaqat Hussain Raja, a Supreme Court attorney in Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistan-administered Kashmir.

"In the past, there have been talks between Pakistan and India at the President's level, at the Prime Minister's level, at minister's level, but nothing has come of those talks. The talks that are being held between the two countries now will most probably put emphasis on water and trade issues," said Raja. "But until and unless the core issue of Kashmir is resolved, these talks can merely be called a daily rehearsal, or forced sittings between two countries under some sort of pressure. Nothing will come out of this."

Analysts say Washington played a key role in getting Pakistan and India back to the negotiating table today.

The two are seen as vital for bringing stability to Afghanistan, and the United States wants to keep tensions from rising as it deploys more troops into the fight against Taliban militants in Afghanistan.

Top leaders from India and Pakistan have met at regional conferences several times since the Mumbai attacks, but today's meeting marks the first real move towards normalization.
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