- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 20, 2003

NEW DELHI, April 20 (UPI) — Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee has once again taken the nation and international community by surprise by saying New Delhi is willing to hold peace talks with neighboring arch rival Pakistan.

Vajpayee's remarks to hold talks with Pakistan came during his two-day weekend visit to India's violence-torn Kashmir valley where he addressed a large public meeting, the first by an Indian Prime Minister in 16 years.

India's latest stance to hold bilateral parleys with Pakistan on all issues, including the most contentious, Kashmir strife, is being seen as off the track from New Delhi's usual stand that Islamabad must end cross border terrorism as a precondition for any talks.

Speaking to large public meeting in Kashmir on Friday, Vajpayee had said, "All issues should be settled through talks . … We are ready … (to discuss) both internal and external problems."

"Guns will not solve the matter but brotherhood will. We once again extend the hand of friendship but it has to be a two-way road," Vajpayee said.

A day later, on Saturday evening, Vajpayee told reporters that it was up to Pakistan to respond to his latest gesture to reach a peace settlement on all issues.

"The ball is in Pakistan's court," Vajpayee said at the end of his two-day visit.

"We are willing to discuss all issues, including Jammu and Kashmir. But the route of cross-border terrorism cannot go on," he said.

This was the first time since 1987 that an Indian premier addressed a public meeting in Kashmir, which is a site of a bloody 14-year-old Islamic uprising in which more than 38,000 people have been killed. Rebels put the toll at more than 80,000.

The two bitterly opposed nations have twice held inconclusive peace talks in recent years. In 1998, Vajpayee made a historic bus journey to Lahore but the outcome of that visit was overshadowed by a major India-Pakistan conflict later that year that brought the two nations closest to a fourth war since 1947.

In 2000, Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf traveled to Agra on an invitation from Vajpayee but the two sides failed to even issue a joint statement at the end of two-day summit.

"I want a new beginning to be made. That is why I extended my hand of friendship to Pakistan," Vajpayee said, adding that his troops will continue to remain on vigil along the Kashmir border with Pakistan to check any infiltration of armed rebels into Indian side of the valley.

Although a majority of Indian political leaders welcomed Vajpayee's latest offer to hold talks with Pakistan, leader of a Hindu nationalist Shiva Sena party, Bal Thackray, flayed the premier's stand saying, "What is the use of such dialogues when Indian armed forces personnel are getting killed at the border? Pakistan is not worthy of friendship."

Islamic rebels fighting for independence of Kashmir too welcomed Vajpayee's gesture but wanted to be included in the talks.

"The offer seems to be welcomed, but all three parties in the dispute must be invited for any such talks," Syed Salahuddin, the leader of the largest militant group, Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, said in a statement issued in Muzaffarabad, Pakistan.

Pakistan's Prime Minister Zafarullah Jamali has welcomed Vajpayee's offer, saying it was a "positive development".

"Pakistan's stand remains the same. But once talks start there could be flexibility from both sides," Jamali told reporters in Islamabad Saturday.

The relationship between India and Pakistan has been largely hostile since the two countries gained independence from British rule in 1947, leading to decades of war and mistrust between Islamabad and New Delhi.

The most contentious issue is the two nations' competing claims on the disputed northern territory of Kashmir, which has been the cause of two of the three Indo-Pakistani wars.

New Delhi accuses Islamabad of aiding and abetting the insurgency, a charge Pakistan denies, but says it provides moral and diplomatic support to rebels whom it calls Islamic freedom fighters.

The two nuclear rivals continue to exchange almost daily minor skirmishes along the Kashmir border.

Washington has often counseled both nations to resolve the issues through bilateral talks.

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