India-Pakistan talks in Islamabad pave way for more dialogue

Foreign secretaries discussed the exchange of information over nuclear facilities, among other issues.

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ISLAMABAD // Two days of talks between the chief diplomats of India and Pakistan ended yesterday with a pledge to avoid rhetoric that could undermine efforts to repair relations scarred by the Mumbai terrorist attacks.

The delegations in Islamabad, both led by foreign secretaries, maintained a cordial, businesslike demeanour during three sessions of discussions aimed at reducing the possibility of conflict between the South Asian rivals.

India and Pakistan have fought three wars and as many regionalised conflicts since gaining independence from British colonial rule in 1947.

The foreign secretaries discussed the exchange of information over nuclear facilities, ballistic missile tests and conventional military activities, a joint communiqué said.

It said talks also covered the Kashmir territorial dispute, the root of bilateral tensions, and the need to ease trade and travel restrictions for residents of the region.

The third session was dedicated to promoting "friendly exchanges" between businesses, athletes and the general public. An agreement was reached, in principle, to ease restrictive visa regimes, the communiqué said.

Addressing a brief joint press conference, the Indian and Pakistani foreign secretaries agreed that the talks had been "constructive, productive and forward-looking".

"It is some years ago that we started a process, and that resumed process is now well under way," said the Pakistan foreign secretary, Salman Bashir.

India and Pakistan came close to reaching a comprehensive peace agreement in August 2006, but the deal was stymied by general elections in both countries. The potential pact was dashed by the Mumbai attacks in 2008.

The Indian foreign secretary, Nirupama Rao, said "satisfaction" with Pakistani action against the perpetrators of the Mumbai attacks was a requisite step towards a lasting peace.

"The ideology of military conflict should have no place in the paradigm of our relations in the 21st century. We must do away with the shadow of the gun," she told reporters in Islamabad.

This week's talks were the fifth and final round of meetings between officials to prepare an agenda for their foreign ministers who are scheduled to meet in Delhi next month.

The Indian and Pakistani prime ministers eased post-Mumbai tensions at a meeting in India on the sidelines of the cricket World Cup in January.

Since the foreign secretaries formally set the process in motion in February, there has been a series of talks between officials covering disputes over maritime and mountain borders, water rights over the Indus River and its tributaries, and bilateral trade.

Officials have placed priority on less controversial "confidence- building measures" aimed at decreasing public hostility through face-to-face contact.

Analysts said the talks followed urging by major powers, which are concerned about wider South Asian security as the US begins to reduce its military deployment in Afghanistan.

"The US and China have been pressing their respective allies, India and Pakistan, to resume dialogue," said the former Pakistani foreign secretary, Akram Zaki.

The analysts said peace talks between India and Pakistan were unlikely to gather serious momentum because of the political instability plaguing Pakistan.

"You can only be as strong with foreign powers as you are strong internally," said the former foreign minister, Khurshid Kasuri.

"When you have the sort of situation that you have currently in Pakistan, when people are daily predicting a clash of institutions and openly speculating whether the government would last the next month, that does not inspire confidence in foreign governments."

Security analysts said the talks were belied by the deep-seated hostility between the two countries, reflected last week when a Pakistani naval vessel escorting a ship, carrying hostages freed by Somali pirates, collided with an Indian navy ship off the coast of Yemen.

That hostility could only be overcome if the two governments were to give priority to economic development over strategic competition, they said.

"Unless you have development, there will be proxy wars - that is the nature of the beast. We need commonality of interest in peace, and that can only be if the nature of the relationship changes," said Maria Sultan, the director-general of the South Asia Strategic Stability Institute, a London-based think tank.

Analysts said Afghanistan was emerging as a key testing ground for relations between India and Pakistan.

Up to last year, south-east districts of Afghanistan had looked in danger of becoming a proxy battleground between India and Pakistan, they said.

Analysts said there had, however, been a noticeable shift in Pakistan's stance over India's diplomatic presence in Afghanistan since the start of the year.

"There is a strategic sea-change in Pakistani thinking. It now wants India to develop Afghanistan, because it believes once India becomes a stakeholder in the peace of Afghanistan, it would cease its counterintelligence and counter-terrorist operations inside Pakistan," Ms Sultan said.