Nuclear rivals start dialogue on peace

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 February, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 16 February, 2004, 12:00am

After five years of mounting hostilities, India and Pakistan will today start laying the groundwork for rebuilding relations

Officials from India and Pakistan are to begin talks in Islamabad aimed at fostering co-operation, after a surprise flare-up between the rivals over a cricket tour threatened to sour relations.

A cordial atmosphere for the three days of dialogue was preserved when Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee intervened on Saturday to ensure the nation's cricket team went ahead with its Pakistan tour next month.

Islamabad is keen on a home series against India, but Mr Vajpayee's party colleagues, reportedly led by Deputy Prime Minister Lal Krishna Advani, had reservations about the timing of the cricket tour.

The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) faces national elections in two months. Since cricket is India's national sport, party leaders fear a domestic political backlash if the team loses to Pakistan.

Worse would be a terrorist attack harming an Indian cricketer idolised by the masses, though Islamabad has promised tight security for the players.

Even the cricket-oblivious United States waded into the fray, with Washington stating the need for the talks to begin on an established footing.

'The world will be paying very close attention to their progress, and wishing them success,' said US assistant Secretary of State Christina Rocca, who was in India last week

The US has maintained behind-the-scenes pressure on both sides to ensure the friendship that gathered momentum after Mr Vajpayee and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf met on the sidelines of a regional summit in Islamabad last month moves ahead.

The three-day talks in Islamabad are seen as a critical step towards resolving tensions between the nuclear-armed rivals.

They last held foreign secretary-level talks more than five years ago, but any progress was lost when both nations conducted nuclear tests in 1998, followed by increased bloodshed in disputed Kashmir and Islamic terrorist strikes in India.

The earlier talks focused on eight areas: Kashmir, peace and security, terrorism, trade and economic co-operation, cultural and educational exchanges, cross-border water, disputes over a creek on the Arabian Sea and a glacier in the Himalayas coveted by both sides.

That 10,000 sq km glacier, which lies at the western end of the mountain chain, best sums up the often pointlessly destructive nature of India-Pakistan relations.

Since 1984, soldiers from both sides have engaged in sporadic skirmishes in a place where 277km/h winds and temperatures of minus 40 degrees Celsius, rather than enemy bullets, claimed more casualties than bullets.

The negotiations this week will finalise the agenda and timetable for the resumption of long-term dialogue.

Although reducing the risk of nuclear war was not part of the previous agenda, Washington is now pushing for increased dialogue.

Analysts said New Delhi might want to schedule talks on that issue only after the elections.

Prime Minister Vajpayee, keen for early elections, has promised that a newly elected government would be in place in New Delhi by April.