India and Pakistan began talks yesterday about ways to reduce the risk of nuclear war for the first time since the neighbors became nuclear powers in 1998 and two years after they edged to the brink of war.
The two days of meetings in New Delhi come during a hesitant year-old peace process as the two sides try to rebuild relations a week before broader high-level talks.
Pakistan's acting foreign secretary, Tariq Osman Hyder, is leading an eight-member team for the discussions with an additional secretary from India's Foreign Ministry, Sheel Kant Sharma, and other officials.
Talks are expected to include establishing a hotline between the two nations to prevent a sudden nuclear escalation.
The Pakistani delegates were expected to meet India's Foreign Minister Natwar Singh later yesterday.
The nuclear talks, delayed a month by India's recent election, comes a week before discussions next Sunday between the two foreign secretaries -- the civil servants in charge of both foreign ministries -- on a range of issues, including disputed Kashmir.
Tensions over Kashmir, especially fighting in the summer of 1999 in the rugged region of Kargil, have delayed the nuclear risk reduction talks for six years.
Some analysts say building nuclear trust between the two neighbors -- armed with an arsenal of nuclear-capable ballistic missiles and bogged down by decades of hostility -- is crucial for improving ties.
"Nuclear trust is so important. It will create a better atmosphere and form a stronger basis for proceeding on other issues including Kashmir," said Pran Chopra, South Asian analyst and commentator.
Analysts also say the fact the countries are talking about how to prevent nuclear conflict is welcome in itself.
"The aim of the talks is to agree on the broad agenda for future talks. It is unrealistic to expect a quick breakthrough. It took the superpowers over 30 years to break their nuclear impasse," defense analyst Jasjit Singh said.
"But whether now or later, both sides will have to talk about reducing armed conflict across its full spectrum to decrease the risk of a nuclear clash," Singh said.
India and Pakistan have fought two of their three wars over the scenic Himalayan region of Kashmir, where Muslim militants are fighting New Delhi's forces in the portion held by India.
Despite attempts at a peace process after Kargil, the two countries came close to war in mid-2002 after insurgents based in Pakistan attacked India's parliament in late 2001, triggering international fears of a nuclear exchange.
But an offer of peace last year by Atal Behari Vajpayee, then India's prime minister, drew an encouraging response from Islamabad. Transport links and full diplomatic ties were restored and the ageing leader met Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf in January in Pakistan. New Delhi's stated nuclear policy is not to strike first with nuclear weapons, but Pakistan, worried about India's growing conventional military superiority, has made no such pledge.
"The differences in these two doctrines is a major obstacle that must be dealt with in these and future talks," Chopra said.
More high-level diplomatic contact takes place on Monday when Singh meets his Pakistani counterpart Kursheed Mehmood Kasuri on the sidelines of a regional conference in China.
This will be the first time the two will have met since Singh became foreign minister.