- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 6, 2004

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Pakistan and India announced yesterday a peace process meant to settle their bitter, 56-year dispute over the Himalayan region of Kashmir, the cause of two wars, constant bloodshed and tens of thousands of deaths.

“History has been made,” Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf said at a press conference. “The sky is the limit.”

Gen. Musharraf said Pakistan had agreed “not to allow the use of Pakistan’s territory anywhere in the world,” an apparent promise to end his country’s purported sponsorship of Islamist militants in the part of Kashmir controlled by India.

While India has scoffed at such claims in the past, “it seems from today’s declaration that the Indians now believe it,” said Pakistani peace activist Abdul Hamid Nayyar, a nuclear physicist.

“There are no winners or losers here,” said Gen. Musharraf, a key U.S. ally who took power in a 1999 coup. “It is a victory to the moderates in India and the moderates in Pakistan.”

Talks beginning in February will focus on several topics, but it is Kashmir that has largely defined the five decades of conflict between Muslim Pakistan and Hindu-majority India. Both nuclear-armed countries claim the Muslim-majority region and each controls a part of the territory.

Gen. Musharraf and Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee held a closed-door meeting Monday after several days of preliminary talks by other officials on the sidelines of a conference of South Asian leaders.

Officials had sought to play down the prospect of a grand declaration this week, mindful of the high expectations and bitter disappointment of a failed summit at Agra, India, in July 2001.

Yesterday, however, the foreign ministers of India and Pakistan released a six-paragraph statement announcing that “the two leaders are confident that the resumption of the composite dialogue will lead to peaceful settlement of all bilateral issues, including Jammu and Kashmir, to the satisfaction of both sides.”

No specific proposals were raised to solve the Kashmir dispute, nor was a timetable given for talks.

“They will discard that which is unacceptable to India and discard that which is unacceptable to Pakistan and move from there,” said Najimuddin Shaikh, a former Pakistani foreign secretary. “What form that will take remains to be seen.”

Gen. Musharraf, who was the target of two assassination attempts last month, said his military-led government would act to “eradicate” religious extremists in Pakistan. “We will get to them, I am sure.”

Pakistan has announced a crackdown on radical groups, but analysts have doubted its intensity.

“The last military government started these groups and now this one is putting them down,” said Hafiz Riaz Durrani, a spokesman for the Jamiat Ulema Islam, a politically powerful radical Islamic group that has supported holy warriors in Kashmir and Afghanistan. “Now that they have finished with them, they’re banned.”

In Washington, Pakistani Ambassador Ashraf Jehangir Qazi met with White House officials to explain details of the agreement.

“Administration officials are delighted by the outcome,” Mr. Qazi told The Washington Times by telephone afterward. He called the agreement a “historic development.”

“It’s very good news,” he said. “Let’s hope we can build on it and enter a new era with India.”

Both the Indian and Pakistani leaders denied that U.S. pressure or mediation played a role in the rapprochement. But analysts noted a growing U.S. role in the region, from Afghanistan to Pakistan to burgeoning military cooperation with India.

The regional shift has been “tectonic,” Mr. Shaikh said. “The plates have moved.”

Talat Masood, a retired Pakistani general, said: “The American factor for both countries is very important, given that America is now our neighbor. They are both trying to woo America.”

Gen. Musharraf has long talked of the need to turn Pakistan into a moderate Islamic state similar to Turkey. Pakistan also has been embarrassed by charges that it shared nuclear technology with North Korea, Iran and Libya.

Mr. Vajpayee’s Hindu nationalist-led coalition, meanwhile, is planning to call national elections in the spring, and can be expected to benefit from the prime minister’s new image as a peacemaker.

Relations between the two countries hit a low in December 2001 after India blamed Pakistan for a suicide attack on its Parliament. India mobilized for war and more than 1 million troops were massed at the border for months.

Mr. Vajpayee, who at age 79 may be thinking of his legacy, said in April that he wanted to give peace another try. The two countries restaffed their embassies and restored cross-border bus service between Lahore and New Delhi. In November, Pakistan announced a cease-fire along the Line of Control dividing Kashmir and India reciprocated.

• James Morrison in Washington contributed to this article.

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