Mon, Jun 28, 2004 - Page 1 News List

India and Pakistan open new round of talks on Kashmir


India and Pakistan yesterday held their first substantive talks in six years on disputed Kashmir -- a key hurdle in their revived peace process.

India's Foreign Secretary Shashank and Pakistani Foreign Secretary Riaz Khokhar shook hands, smiled and waved to reporters before leading their separate delegations into the closed, four-hour talks in New Delhi.

A second round is scheduled for today.

The nuclear-armed neighbors have fought two full-scale wars and a 1999 border war over the divided Himalayan region and narrowly avoided another conflict in 2002. Both claim the territory in its entirety.

Underscoring the importance of easing tensions, suspected Islamic rebels on Saturday attacked a village in Indian-controlled Kashmir, killing 12 people.

India accuses Pakistan of collaborating with the rebels, who want independence for Indian Kashmir or its merger with Moslem-dominated Pakistan. Pakistan denies the allegation, which is a key source of rancor.

``We have very important business to do,'' Khokhar said after arriving in New Delhi on Saturday. ``We certainly will approach these talks with great sincerity and seriousness.''

The two countries haven't held substantive talks on resolving the Kashmir dispute since 1998.

Last November, the rivals agreed to a ceasefire along the Line of Control, which divides Kashmir. Both sides have stop-ped their daily gunfire, but have jointly amassed nearly 1 million soldiers in the region. India was expected to use the talks to propose both sides pull some back.

India is also expected to raise the issue of Islamic insurgents allegedly crossing from Pakistan-controlled Kashmir into Indian territory.

Pakistan says it doesn't allow terrorists on its soil but acknowledges giving political and diplomatic support to what it sees as the legitimate struggle of the Kashmiri people to end Indian occupation.

Some of the Islamic groups fighting in India's portion of Kashmir have headquarters in Pakistan. A dozen groups have been fighting the government in India-controlled Kashmir since 1989 in a conflict that has killed than 65,000 people, mostly Muslim civilians.

The main Hezb-ul Mujahedeen militant group welcomed yesterday's talks, but said there would be no pause in rebel attacks.

``It is good that Pakistan and India have started talking directly about Kashmir,'' the group's spokesman, Salim Hashmi, said in Pakistan. He spoke from an unidentified location.

However, the ``mujahedeen are continuing their activities in Indian Kashmir .... Armed struggle is going along. There should be no condition for it to stop for the talks,'' he said.

In New Delhi, Pakistani Foreign Secretary Khokhar yesterday met three pro-independence Kashmiri leaders from Indian-held Kashmir before the talks with the Indian government started, a Pakistani diplomat said on condition of anonymity.

Representing the Ittihadi Force, Shabir Shah, Yasin Malik and Sheikh Abdul Aziz demanded the inclusion of Kashmiri repre-sentatives in the India-Pakistan dialogue, the Press Trust of India news agency said.

India controls 46 percent of Kashmir, Pakistan holds 35 percent and China controls the rest.

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