May 2nd, 2003, 09:33 AM
Cross your fingers
India, Pakistan to Hold Peace Talks
By LAURINDA KEYS, Associated Press Writer
NEW DELHI, India - India and Pakistan announced Friday they will soon hold their first talks in almost two years aimed at ending 50 years of war and acrimony between the nuclear-armed neighbors.
Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee said he is restoring civil aviation links that were broken last year and will appoint a new ambassador to Pakistan. Pakistan also is likely to restore diplomatic ties, the information minister said.
Vajpayee, 78 and ailing, has indicated he would like to leave a legacy of peace between India and Pakistan.
"This round of talks will be decisive," he told Parliament, "and at least for my life, these will be the last."
The two countries went on war footing last year after India blamed Pakistan for an attack by Islamic militants on the Indian Parliament in December 2001. Pakistan denied involvement. Tensions eased after intense diplomacy by the United States and Britain.
Continuing those efforts, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage is to visit the region next week.
Pakistan's foreign ministry said Vajpayee's announcement was "a good step in the right direction."
"Talks will begin very soon," Pakistan's Information Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed told The Associated Press in Islamabad. "Things are moving very fast."
Last week, Vajpayee conditionally offered talks with Pakistan on the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir (news - web sites) and other issues. Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf voiced some reservations but called the offer a sign of improvement.
Pakistani Prime Minister Zafarullah Khan Jamali made a similar overture in a phone call Monday to the Indian leader, the first such high-level contact in almost two years.
"We are committed to the improvement of relations with Pakistan and we are willing to grasp every opportunity for doing so," Vajpayee told Indian lawmakers.
A dispute over divided Kashmir is the main source of the friction between the nuclear-armed neighbors. Both countries claim Kashmir in its entirety and have fought two wars over the region since their independence from Britain in 1947.
Vajpayee did not directly answer Parliament members' questions about whether he was changing India's policy of not holding talks with Pakistan until Islamic militants stop crossing the frontier to wage attacks in the Indian-controlled portion of Kashmir and elsewhere in the country.
India accuses Pakistan of aiding the militants. Pakistan says it only gives the fighters ideological support.
"This is a new beginning," he said. "We don't want to forget the past, but we don't want to remain slaves of the past."
Vajpayee said he was trying for "a third time" to make permanent peace with Pakistan.
In 1999, he traveled to Lahore to meet with then-Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, but a few months later the two nations were involved in what India calls the Kargil War in the mountains of Kashmir. Vajpayee invited Musharraf to talks in the Taj Mahal city of Agra in July 2001. There were no agreements and in December came the Parliament attack.
The two countries went on war alert, deployed thousands of troops to their frontiers, withdrew their ambassadors and severed air and ground transportation links.
Analysts say that Vajpayee — unlike hawks within his Cabinet — does not believe that the constant threat of terrorism or war with Pakistan will win votes in India's national elections next year.
His announcement also puts India in a good position for receiving Armitage. India has traditionally preferred to portray itself as being reasonable in the dispute with Pakistan.
"Terrorism is continuing. Anything can happen anytime. So should I not have extended the hand of friendship?" Vajpayee said. "We want to give another chance to peace, and with self-respect, not with weakness."