Wed, May 24, 2006 - Page 5 News List

India, Pakistan begin new round of Kashmir talks

PEACE PROCESS Talks on troop removals from the Siachen glacier restarted, with a key sticking point being whether current positions should be clearly marked


Nuclear rivals India and Pakistan started a fresh round of talks yesterday over the Siachen glacier in Kashmir, where thousands of troops are holed up in freezing temperatures in a costly standoff.

The two-day talks in New Delhi over the world's highest battlefield follow local media reports in the past few months that the two sides were inching towards a blueprint for a troop pullout, though officials are tightlipped.

Both sides fielded large teams of bureaucrats and military officers, headed by their respective defense secretaries.

The Siachen dialogue -- part of a wide-ranging peace process -- comes a day ahead of a peace conference involving Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and some Kashmiri separatist groups in Srinagar, the main city in India's Jammu and Kashmir state.

Thousands of soldiers have died in Siachen, high in the Himalayas, with more fatalities due to freezing temperatures, high altitude sickness and avalanches than to enemy fire.

Though diplomatic, commercial, sporting and transport links between India and Pakistan have improved since their peace process started in January 2004, they have made little headway over Kashmir, the cause of two of their three wars.

A key sticking point over Siachen is seen to be India's demand that troop positions be marked on the ground and on a map as evidence in case the area is occupied by Pakistan after a pullout deal is reached.

The region has witnessed no fighting since late 2003, when a ceasefire came into place on the militarized Kashmir frontier.

But analysts and Indian military officials say New Delhi's security establishment remains distrustful of the Pakistan army.

They point out that in 1999, Pakistan-backed Islamist infiltrators occupied the Kargil heights in northern Indian Kashmir, and India lost hundreds of troops before re-occupying the mountains after bitter fighting and a near war.

"Kargil made it very clear that if you leave any part of your territory undefended, you cannot rule out the possibility of the Pakistanis coming in," former Indian High Commissioner to Pakistan G. Parthasarathy told reporters.

But Pakistani analysts say Islamabad is uneasy about marking positions, fearing it will legitimize India's hold in Siachen.

Hopes of forward movement were raised last year after Singh said he wanted to convert Siachen into a "peace mountain" as both sides tried to push forward their cautious peace process.

Meanwhile, Indian troops sealed off vast swathes of Kashmir's summer capital following a spate of violence by Islamic militants in the runup to a visit today by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the army said.

Combat troops backed border guards in Srinagar where residents in several districts found themselves coralled into "sanitized zones."

"There is very tight security in view of the roundtable conference and the prime minister's visit and operations are going on across the [Kashmir] valley," Indian army spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Vijay Batra told reporters.

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