India and Pakistan agree 'historic' peace talks

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The Independent Online

India and Pakistan sought to put more than a half-century of bloodshed behind them today, and agreed to start talks next month on core disputes of nationalism and religion that have taken the nuclear-armed nations into three wars.

The talks will touch on all topics, including the flashpoint issue of Kashmir, foreign ministers from both countries said in a joint statement.

"There are no winners or losers," Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf said in a press conference following the announcement. "I think victory is for the world - for all those peace loving people of the world. Victory is for all the people of India and Pakistan. Victory is for the people of Kashmir who have suffered for all these years, who are suffering. I would say victory is to the moderates in India and the moderates in Pakistan."

General Musharraf, wearing a black suit instead of his green military uniform, gave credit for the deal to the "vision" and "statesmanship" of Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. He said the two men sealed the agreement early today in a phone call following their historic face-to-face meeting a day earlier.

The surprise agreement followed two days of leadership talks under the cover of a major South Asian regional summit that provided the impetus for Vajpayee's visit to the Pakistani capital.

Indian Foreign Minister Yashwant Sinha said details, including the location of the talks and the level at which they will be held, were still to be worked out, but that the negotiations would be ongoing and comprehensive.

He expressed optimism the talks would lead to a lasting peace agreement, including on the issue of Kashmir. The Himalayan region is divided between the two countries, but claimed by both in its entirety. The dispute has claimed at least 65,000 lives since 1989.

"The two leaders are confident that the resumption of the composite dialogue will lead to the peaceful settlement of all bilateral issues, including Jammu and Kashmir, to the satisfaction of both sides," Sinha said, reading from the joint declaration.

A high-ranking Indian official said that the talks would revolve around eight points, including Kashmir and two other territorial disputes, fighting terrorism, trade and confidence building measures.

The meetings between Mr Vajpayee, Gen. Musharraf and Pakistani Prime Minister Zafarullah Khan Jamali on Sunday and yesterday were the first between Indian and Pakistani leaders in more than two years, and they occurred in an atmosphere of optimism after months of tit-for-tat steps to improve relations.

The two countries have called a ceasefire between their troops in Kashmir, resumed high-level diplomatic ties and restored transportation links.

But there had been no indication such a breakthrough was possible, and both sides had sought to dampen any expectations ahead of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation summit, which concluded today.