US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage began meeting Indian leaders yesterday on the final leg of a South Asian tour aimed at nudging India and Pakistan further down the path towards peace.
Just hours before the talks, suspected Muslim rebels killed three members of Indian Kashnmir's ruling party. Muslim-majority Kashmir is the main issue souring relations between the nuclear-armed neighbors.
Armitage, who said after talks in Pakistan he saw the beginning of a new dialogue between the rivals, was meeting Indian Deputy Prime Minister Lal Krishna Advani and other key figures before seeing Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee.
After coming close to war over Kashmir last year, India and Pakistan have in recent weeks announced the resumption of normal diplomatic ties and an easing of curbs on transport links imposed after a December 2001 raid on India's parliament it blamed on Pakistan-based rebels.
But analysts caution the road to lasting peace between the neighbors who have fought three wars will be a long one and any summit between their leaders is unlikely until late in the year.
In a sign of the priority Washington is placing on the thaw, US President George W. Bush dropped in on talks between Indian security adviser Brajesh Mishra and his US counterpart, Condoleezza Rice, in Washington on Thursday, Indian newspapers said.
On the eve of Armitage's visit, the hardline Advani said friendship with Pakistan was possible, but it must end support for Pakistan-based militants fighting Indian rule in Kashmir.
"Friendship is in our interest, Pakistan's interest, in the interest of the world," Advani told a meeting of his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.
"Friendship is possible," he said. "But you have to dismantle the terrorist infrastructure first."
India accuses Pakistan of training and arming militants and sending them to fight in Kashmir, what it calls "cross-border terrorism." Pakistan says it gives only moral support to the Kashmiri "freedom struggle".
Police said yesterday three workers with the People's Democratic Party, which leads the government in India's Jammu and Kashmir state, were killed by suspected separatists in two attacks.
No group has claimed responsibility. Prominent diplomatic efforts to press India and Pakistan to talk have in the past often seen high profile attacks in Kashmir, where up to 80,000 people have been killed since 1989 in the revolt against Indian rule.
Hours before Armitage arrived in New Delhi on Friday, India conducted the first test of its air-to-air Astra missile.
But analysts said the successful test firing of the 40km range Astra was part of an upgrade of India's conventional weaponry and would have no impact on ties with Pakistan, which has its own missile program.