- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 17, 2004

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — India and Pakistan yesterday agreed to a timetable for peace talks that both sides hope will end a history of enmity and mistrust, striking the deal in a closed-door meeting of diplomats at a mountain retreat not far from their disputed border region, Kashmir.

The breakthrough signaled optimism that change was realistic, just two years after the neighbors nearly went to war.

“Things are moving in a positive direction,” Indian Foreign Secretary Shashank, who uses one name, said yesterday after arriving in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad.

The agreement, announced in a Pakistani Foreign Ministry statement, will be finalized today during a meeting between Mr. Shashank and his Pakistani counterpart, Riaz Khokhar. After years of sputtering efforts to end a conflict that has raged for more than a half-century, diplomats are hopeful that the moment has arrived for progress.

“A broad understanding was reached on the modalities and the time frame,” the Pakistani statement said.

Neither side would reveal the specifics of the timetable. However, India and Pakistan are expected to set up eight groups to tackle the decades-old Kashmir dispute, build confidence and deal with issues, such as nuclear arms, terrorism, drugs and trade. The two sides first agreed to the agenda in 1997 but failed to make any headway.

Diplomats close to the talks also said technical-level discussions about a bus service in divided Kashmir and another bus and train route from Pakistan’s Sindh province would take place next month.

With Indian elections scheduled for April, no major breakthroughs are expected from the peace process anytime soon. However, Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee is expected to win the vote and continue the dialogue.

In recent months, India and Pakistan have moved to restore transportation links and diplomatic ties, and their soldiers have halted cross-border firing in Kashmir, the source of two of the three wars between the South Asian rivals.

Yesterday, the two delegations drove to Murree, a hilltop resort 30 miles northeast of Islamabad, and just a few miles from the Pakistani-controlled portion of Kashmir, where the agreement was reached over lunch.

The three-day summit, which ends today, comes after Mr. Vajpayee and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf decided last month to resume the dialogue. A July 2001 summit in Agra, India, failed to make any progress.

In January, Mr. Vajpayee agreed to discuss Kashmir while Gen. Musharraf promised not to support terrorism in Pakistani territory directed against India.

Meanwhile, eight Pakistani children reached home yesterday after India released them from its jails as a gesture aimed at improving relations between the two countries. Indian border security forces arrested them during the past two years for straying into Indian territory.

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