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India-Pakistan Aviation Talks End Without Agreement - 2003-08-28

Talks to restore direct air service between India and Pakistan ended Thursday without an agreement, but with both sides agreeing to continue discussions. Observers see a deal in the near future as almost certain, given the high economic costs of the suspension.

Officials taking part in the air service negotiations in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, described the discussions as "cordial and business-like" and have agreed to resume the talks at a date to be decided later.

While the two sides declined to offer details on the state of negotiations, many observers, such as former Pakistani Foreign Secretary Tanvir Ahmed Khan, are optimistic about the resumption of air service.

"I'm sure, I have absolutely no doubt that it's a question of time before these details are worked out," he said.

India initiated the stoppage following a terrorist attack on its parliament in December 2001, which it claimed was carried out with the aid of Pakistani intelligence.

Both sides are believed to have paid a high price for the suspension in terms of travel revenue, but Mr. Khan says India was the greater loser.

"I think India paid the bigger price because India had far more services overflying Pakistan, far more flights heading west toward West Asia or beyond to Europe," said Mr. Khan.

He says the importance of the suspension is seen in the fact that air service between the two neighbors had only been cut once before, on the eve of the 1971 Indo-Pakistani war.

"We have known periods of extreme tension between India and Pakistan in the past, prolonged periods of tension, but the air services continued," he said. "I mean this was a new dimension to the build-up of crisis between India and Pakistan."

As part of a new deal, Pakistan is calling for assurances that once resumed, air flights will continue even in times of tension.

Sources say one key detail prolonging the talks involves whether to allow carriers to fly over each other's territory en route to third countries.

Overflights were allowed under the two countries' previous arrangement. But sources say Pakistan is now hesitating to allow India to resume direct air service into Afghanistan, to protect business Pakistani carriers have built up during the suspension.