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India/Pakistan: Talks Bolster Hopes For Peace Process

India and Pakistan say two days of talks between their interior ministers have enhanced the peace process by allowing both sides to share their views on terrorism and drug smuggling. Both issues are linked to their wider dispute over the divided region of Kashmir. So far, the peace process launched in January has achieved little concrete progress beyond agreements for further talks. But one prominent U.S. expert on South Asia predicts the nuclear-capable neighbors will achieve a major breakthrough as soon as September that will reduce the risk of a nuclear confrontation.

Prague, 12 August 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Talks on 10-11 August between the interior ministers of Indian and Pakistan focused on two contentious issues -- cross-border terrorism and drug smuggling.

The meetings in Islamabad between India's Dhirendra Singh and Pakistan's Tariq Mehmood were part of a comprehensive peace process that is focusing on the disputes that have prevented Islamabad and New Delhi from resolving more than five decades of hostility over the divided region of Kashmir.

In a joint statement yesterday, both sides reaffirmed their determination to combat and eliminate terrorism. The statement gave no further details and the ministers themselves would not elaborate. But experts say their silence is not surprising considering the nature of conflict.

New Delhi accuses Islamabad of arming and training Islamic militants who are fighting Indian troops in Indian-administered Kashmir. Pakistan says it provides only moral and political support to what it calls "Kashmiri freedom fighters." Islamabad accuses India of human rights violations against the mostly Muslim population in Kashmir. It contends that the region should either be granted independence or be allowed to become a part of Pakistan.

Today, officials in New Delhi said the two interior ministers had contributed to confidence-building measures by exchanging the names of more than 80 wanted terrorist and criminal suspects. Thirty of the suspects are sought by New Delhi. More than 50 are wanted by Islamabad.

Pakistani officials also announced today that they will release 41 Indian prisoners and more than 400 Indian fishermen by mid-September as a gesture of goodwill. The fishermen were detained by Pakistani authorities after their boats strayed into Pakistani waters.

In Washington, a prominent expert on South Asia is predicting a major breakthrough as soon as September that would reduce the risk of a nuclear confrontation between India and Pakistan over Kashmir. Michael Krepon is the president emeritus of the Henry L. Stimson Center -- an independent, nonprofit think tank devoted to enhancing international peace and security.

"I still believe that significant concrete progress is possible. And in September, I for one, am looking for both governments to demonstrate responsible nuclear stewardship by agreeing to and properly implementing nuclear-risk-reduction measures -- particularly with respect to their missile programs," Krepon said.
"They understand that their preferred position on Kashmir isn't going to happen. It's therefore a little bit perplexing why they're so insistent that something happens quickly." - Krepon

Early this year, the Henry L. Stimson Center initiated a series of private workshops with Pakistani and Indian experts aimed at reducing the risk of nuclear war. Krepon said he also has gained insight about the peace process from his personal contacts with government officials from both countries. "The Pakistani leadership that I've met with are not dumb," he said. "They understand that their preferred position on Kashmir isn't going to happen. It's therefore a little bit perplexing why they're so insistent that something happens quickly."

Krepon said India should embrace Pakistan's desire to improve the lives of ordinary Kashmiris by working with Islamabad to foster economic development in the region before a final settlement is reached. "It would be wise for the government of India to say: 'Yes, let's try to make something happen quickly. But in the meantime, let's improve the quality of life for Kashmiris by allowing divided families to meet, allowing Kashmiris to trade with one another, and to facilitate their trade with the outside world. Let's reopen lines of communication across a divided Kashmir. Let's encourage economic development and foreign direct investment in this bedeviled region,'" he said. "Why not do all of these things and help Kashmiris while we're waiting for a final settlement?"

Officials from both countries launched a separate round of talks yesterday that are focusing on how overall trade between India and Pakistan can be enhanced. Official statistics show bilateral trade will be less than $500 million a year -- far less that its potential. But trade between the two countries is now more than double the levels seen in 2002 when the nuclear rivals were on the brink of war over Kashmir.

Despite the ongoing rounds of talks and confidence-building measures, fresh violence flared again in Indian-administered Kashmir today. Muslim rebels shot dead two suspected informers they abducted and Indian troops shot dead four suspected Islamic militants who had crossed over the part of Kashmir that is controlled by Pakistan.