Pakistan and India said they will hold their first peace talks in two and half years next month in Islamabad on issues including their competing claims to Kashmir.
The announcement Tuesday of the Feb. 16 to Feb. 18 talks, made simultaneously in Islamabad and New Delhi, came as the leading Muslim cleric in the divided Himalayan province called for an end to fighting between Indian security forces and separatist militants.
Speaking in New Delhi, cleric Umar Farooq, a peaceful advocate of the Kashmiri struggle, voiced optimism that a ceasefire in the insurgency was in the cards, and that "the mind-set of those holding the gun is changing."
The dispute over Kashmir lies at the heart of five decades of hostility between the nuclear-armed neighbors, and has only deepened in the past decade as the separatist insurgency has taken hold. During 2002, the nuclear-armed neighbors almost fought their third war in Kashmir since independence 56 years ago.
But culminating months of delicate moves to ease tensions, Pakistan's President General Pervez Musharraf and India's Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee agreed on Jan. 6 at a regional summit in Islamabad to hold peace talks.
The last such talks were held between the two leaders in Agra, India, in July 2001, and failed amid inflexibility over Kashmir, a Muslim-majority province which is split between India and Pakistan but claimed by both.
Masood Khan, spokesman for Pakistan's Foreign Ministry, said next month's talks would be between foreign secretaries -- a rank below foreign minister. The talks are seen as preliminary to higher-level discussions.
The agenda has yet to be finalized, but a Pakistani official said the two sides would start on "softer issues" like cultural and social exchanges, and move on to possibly opening new consulates and then trade relations.
Eventually, they would discuss Indian concerns about infiltration of separatist militants from Pakistan and the territorial dispute over Kashmir, the official said on condition of anonymity.
For the past two months, Pakistani and Indian forces have been observing a ceasefire along the tense military line that divides Kashmir, but the Islamic militants -- who have been fighting for Kashmir's independence or merger with Pakistan since 1989 -- have kept fighting security forces in India's portion of the province.
India accuses Pakistan of giving military help to the militant movement. Pakistan says it only gives moral support. More than 65,000 people have died during the rebellion.
In a sign of the dangerous opposition that remains to peace efforts in the province, some Kashmiri political leaders received death threats when they held talks with the Indian government for the first time last week.
However, cleric Farooq said skepticism about the peace efforts of India and Pakistan -- and the involvement of Kashmiris in the process -- was decreasing, and this was improving the prospects of an end to the violence.
"We're hoping the government of India will announce a unilateral ceasefire" at the start of the Islamic month of sacrifice, Eid-al-Adha, that begins Friday to Saturday, he said. "I appeal to the militants, they should support this endeavor for peace, because there is no other way."
India's Deputy Prime Minister Lal Krishna Advani said militant attacks have declined in recent days.