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Pakistan, India Set Timetable for Peace Talks - 2004-02-18

Pakistan and India have drawn up an agenda for a groundbreaking series of peace talks to end more than a half-century of conflict between the nuclear-armed rivals. Officials say the new dialogue stands a much better chance for success than past efforts to end the cycle of conflict.

After three days of meetings, India and Pakistan announced the first stage of peace talks will begin next month and conclude with a meeting of foreign ministers in August.

Dates and venues for the meetings have yet to be decided, but officials say negotiations at the higher levels will take place after India's general elections, expected in April.

The talks will touch on various issues, including negotiations on lessening the threat of a nuclear war and discussions on curbing terrorism in the region.

The most closely watched issue, however, will be the disputed mountain territory of Kashmir, which has sparked two of the three wars between the neighboring nations.

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf told a meeting of religious scholars that the residents of war-torn Kashmir definitely will have a role in the peace process.

"[After] the foreign ministers' composite dialogue takes place, insha'allah, we will see what happens. At that point, we will have to decide when the Kashmiris will be included," he said.

The talks will be the first peace effort by the rivals in almost three years. Previous efforts stalled after India cut relations with Islamabad, following a terror attack on its Parliament, which it blamed in part on Pakistan.

The history of Indo-Pakistani relations is a virtual graveyard of failed peace talks, wars and skirmishes.

But Pakistani Foreign Secretary Riaz Khokhar says this latest push for peace is different.

"How is it different? I hope it is different," he said. "We feel that the atmosphere is much better and the attitude is positive. And we want to maintain that positive attitude."

Pakistani observers note that both sides have softened their positions on the key question of Kashmir, after almost going to war over the territory in 2002.

They also point to a number of recent peace gestures, including a cease-fire in November that ended years of artillery shelling between Indian and Pakistani troops in Kashmir.