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Ceasefire, Proposed Talks Foster Hope for Kashmir - 2003-12-22

This story is part of VOA's 2003 in Review series

A landmark ceasefire along Kashmir's front-line and proposed talks between India and Kashmiri separatists have fostered hopes that India and Pakistan are ready work toward settling their long dispute over the troubled region. The nuclear-powered rivals have fought two wars over Kashmir and came close to a third last year.

It is the first time the guns have fallen silent across Kashmir's front-line in 14 years. In November, India and Pakistan agreed to a landmark ceasefire across the Line of Control, the border that divides Kashmir between the two nations.

For now, the two armies, and the Kashmiri people, enjoy a break from almost daily exchanges of artillery fire.

And after two years of tension, it appears that India and Pakistan are beginning to rebuild relations. The first sign of a thaw in their chilly relationship came in April, when Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee extended a "hand of friendship" to Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf.

Since then, both sides have made a number of good-will gestures, including exchanging ambassadors.

Navtej Sarna, a spokesman for the Indian Foreign Ministry, explains some other changes. "We have got communication links into place, the buses have started again, the air links are due to start in January, the technical talks for the rail links are happening as we talk, and a lot of other initiatives, a lot of people to people talk has taken place," he says.

Transport links and diplomatic relations between the neighboring countries had been cut for two years, since Islamic militants attacked India's Parliament, killing several people. New Delhi said the attackers were from a group of militants supported by Islamabad, who are fighting to end India's hold on Kashmir.

Pakistan denies all allegations that it supports the militants in Kashmir.

The province, which is predominately Muslim, was divided between Pakistan and India when Great Britain ended colonial rule over the sub-continent. Since 1989, India has been fighting an Islamic insurgency in the roughly two-thirds of Kashmir within its borders. The militants argue that Kashmir should be independent, or united with Muslim Pakistan.

In another sign of progress, the Indian government agreed for the first time to send a senior official - Deputy Prime Minister Lal Krishna Advani - for talks with Kashmiri separatist groups.

No date for talks has been set. But Abdul Ghani Bhat, the head of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, a coalition of Kashmiri separatist groups, says they are ready to negotiate to bring about peace. "If the government of India is out to discuss Kashmir, the future dispensation of Kashmir, we are prepared to talk and talk as much as we can," he says.

An end to the insurgency could have broad repercussions. New Delhi has made the cessation of "cross-border infiltration" a condition to resuming any high-level dialogue with Islamabad over Kashmir. But analysts say that sticking with that condition is dangerous.

India and Pakistan are both nuclear powers. They came close to a third war over Kashmir after the attack on India's parliament, and as tensions flared, nearly a million troops were staring each other down across the Line of Control.

Samina Ahmed, the South Asia director of the international think-tank the International Crisis Group, says resuming high-level communication between New Delhi and Islamabad is critical to preventing another such crisis. "It's far too risky for the leadership of these two countries to make a communication process conditional. It's far too risky because they came that close to war just about a year ago. And any catastrophe within Kashmir, another terrorist attack, could bring them back to December 2001. The lines of communications should be kept open for their own interests," she says.

There are other reasons to be hopeful. Pakistan's President Musharraf recently said Islamabad might be willing to drop its demand for the United Nations to supervise a special plebiscite in Kashmir, as a means of resolving the conflict.

With relations just beginning to warm between India and Pakistan, all eyes will be on Mr. Vajpayee, who will visit Pakistan's capital Islamabad for a regional economic conference in early January. The question of Kashmir and bilateral ties may be dealt with on the meeting's sidelines, as the two leaders look for a way to keep their recent momentum going.