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Pakistan/India: Despite Islamabad Peace Conference, New Delhi Rejects Talks On Kashmir

Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf has been meeting today with Indian lawmakers after an unofficial conference in Islamabad that saw representatives from both countries call for peace. But India is rejecting calls from Pakistan for an official dialogue on the status of the divided region of Kashmir.

Prague, 12 August 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has been meeting with Indian lawmakers today following a two-day peace conference in Islamabad where representatives of both countries called for improved relations.

Musharraf spoke yesterday with the visiting delegation about the disputes between New Delhi and Islamabad that brought the nuclear rivals to the brink of war last year. Musharraf told the Indian lawmakers that even a conventional war is "unthinkable."

"Pakistan desires peace -- for its own benefit, for the mutual benefit of this region [and] especially the benefit of Pakistan and India. We desire peace. We are against conflict. Conflict is unthinkable in the conventional sense, even. It would be disastrous for the region, for the two countries."

And Musharraf stressed Islamabad's position that a long-term settlement with India requires official dialogue on the status of the divided region of Kashmir.

"Pakistan will do its utmost to follow a track of peace, a track of negotiated settlements, through dialogue on the issue of Indo-Pakistan disputes -- all disputes. And when I say all, all cannot exclude Kashmir, obviously."

Pakistani Foreign Minister Khurshid Mehmood Kasuri further detailed Islamabad's hopes for dialogue with India.

"War is not an option between India and Pakistan," he said. "The only alternative is to talk on all issues of concern to both the countries including, of course, the issue of Jammu and Kashmir. Talk substantively and talk with the view of achieving results. We should have a sustainable dialogue, uninterrupted and uninterruptible."

The two-day peace conference in Islamabad took place on the initiative of a nongovernmental organization called the South Asia Free Media Association. Thirty-three Indian lawmakers and more than 20 prominent Indian journalists took up the invitation to attend the event in Islamabad.

It follows a series of diplomatic joint initiatives like the opening of borders, restoration of bus and rail links after an 18-month suspension, and the exchange of ambassadors from both countries.

Indeed, relations have improved markedly since last year when India and Pakistan were on the brink of war following a bomb attack against the Indian Parliament in December of 2001.

But so far, New Delhi has not budged on what Islamabad considers the key issue -- Pakistan's long-standing request for official talks aimed at declaring a final status for Kashmir.

Instead, Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee insists that Islamabad must first bring an end to cross-border attacks in Indian-administered Kashmir by Islamic militants. New Delhi alleges those militants receive support from Pakistan's military regime and, critically, Pakistan's ISI intelligence service.

Pakistani Foreign Minister Kasuri told the visiting Indian lawmakers yesterday that official talks between Islamabad and New Delhi will keep momentum going in the peace drive.

"There is an imperative need to initiate a dialogue process immediately," Kasuri said. "Let us start talking at the level of foreign secretaries to start with. A composite and integrated dialogue is the answer. And it will generate its own momentum and pace for incremental gains."

But political analysts say they think official talks on Kashmir are still some way off. Among them is S. Chanrasekharan, the director of the South Asia Analysis Group in Noida, India.

"More than us [in India], the Western powers -- mostly the USA and others -- think that the track to diplomacy will help. It's not going to help," he said. "There may be any number of delegations up and down. But the proof of the pudding is in the eating. The litmus test is what is happening on the border in Kashmir. Are the incidents decreasing? Is the infiltration decreasing? Are the suicide attacks decreasing? Is Pakistan doing anything to stop this, or at least, to minimize it? The answer is no."

Chanrasekharan told RFE/RL today he thinks this week's unofficial peace conference in Islamabad and the visit by Indian lawmakers will not have any real impact toward a final settlement on Kashmir.

"These delegations may go and come. This may improve the atmospherics. But it's not going to improve the basic division -- the differences we have [or] the basic problems India has with Pakistan. The problem is the military [regime in Islamabad and] the ISI. They are the ones running the country -- not the people in Pakistan. I don't believe [events like this week's peace conference are] going to take us anywhere."

The Indian delegation planned later today to start slowly making its way back by road from Islamabad to New Delhi. The lawmakers were expected to stop at several events between Pakistan's capital and the northeastern Pakistani city of Lahore before crossing the border back into India tomorrow.