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Preparations for Kashmir Talks in Full-Swing - 2004-02-15

A delegation from India has arrived in Pakistan to prepare high-level talks on how to resolve the two nations' long-running dispute over Kashmir. The nuclear-armed rivals are returning to the negotiating table after a gap of nearly three years, during which they almost went to war.

Two Indian foreign ministry officials will spend Monday and Tuesday in Islamabad with their Pakistan counterparts to set up a meeting on Wednesday between the countries' foreign secretaries. The meeting will be aimed at establishing a framework for a long process of engagement.

The dialogue comes after a milestone meeting in early January between Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee at a regional summit meeting held in Islamabad.

"Since they are resuming these talks after a long time, they will have to look at the agenda, the structure of the talks and the future course of action," said Masood Khan, spokesman for Pakistan's foreign ministry. "We think that this should be a good beginning, that we should be able to define the ground rules, identify the agenda and prepare our nations for more comprehensive, substantive talks."

Mr. Khan said that after preliminary talks between the lower-ranking officials, the top Indian diplomat, Foreign Secretary Shashank, and his Pakistani counterpart, Riaz Khokar, will sit down on Wednesday to work out the future course of action.

The Pakistani spokesman says the talks are expected to focus mainly on the Kashmir dispute, the cause of two of the three wars India and Pakistan have fought since 1947.

"This issue has bedeviled relations between India and Pakistan for such a long time," said Mr. Khan. "We have to sit together, negotiate with each other."

The countries came close to another war after Muslim radicals attacked the Indian parliament building in 2001, and New Delhi accused Pakistan of being behind the raid. At one point, a million troops were lined up on the two sides of the border.

January's meeting between President Musharraf and Prime Minister Vajpayee was the culmination of a series of confidence-building steps that began last year. They ranged from a mutual withdrawal of troops to the re-establishment of travel links between the two countries to restoration of full diplomatic relations.

The last formal talks on Kashmir took place in 2001 in the Indian city of Agra, when President Musharraf and Prime Minister Vajpayee met but failed to agree. Addressing senior Pakistan military officers last week, Mr. Musharraf said the two sides would have to show flexibility over Kashmir this time if the new talks are to be successful.

"I have made it very clear that there is a relationship between going forward on the confidence-building measures and [the] dialogue process, including Kashmir," he said. "So if we keep going together we will move forward. If not then … all will crumble and we fall back."

India controls roughly two-thirds of Kashmir, where Muslim separatists have been waging a long-running insurgency. New Delhi accuses Islamabad of sponsoring the insurgency from the Pakistan-held portion of Kashmir, a charge that Pakistan denies.