India and Pakistan agree to hold 'historic' talks over disputed Kashmir

India and Pakistan, on the brink of nuclear war less than two years ago, agreed yesterday to hold peace talks on Kashmir, the disputed Himalayan region which has poisoned their relations for more than half a century.

The deal was described as "historic" by Pakistan's military ruler, General Pervez Musharraf, after a meeting in Islamabad on Monday with the Indian Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, who was visiting Pakistan for the first time in nearly five years. Talks will begin next month between senior diplomats.

In a joint declaration, Gen eral Musharraf pledged not to permit his country to be used as a haven for terrorism, and Mr Vajpayee promised to seek a solution to the Kashmir dispute. Gone were the usual Pakistani denials that it supports Muslim militants fighting Indian rule in the divided territory, and Indian demands that cross-border infiltration stop before a dialogue can begin.

Any reduction of tension in south Asia will be welcome in a world preoccupied with terrorism, the aftermath of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the proliferation of nuclear weapons - for which Pakistan is accused of bearing major responsibility. General Musharraf was seen as a crucial ally by Washington immediately after the September 2001 attacks on Washington and New York, when he risked domestic outrage to support the US-led invasion of Afghanistan. But since then the Bush administration has become disenchanted by evidence of Pakistan sharing nuclear and missile technology with Iran and North Korea - two of the three members of George Bush's "axis of evil" - and Delhi's claims that Islamabad is an active supporter of terrorism on Indian territory.

Isolated internationally and under threat at home, where he has escaped two assassination attempts in the past month, General Musharraf was effusive about the rapprochement with India. Most details of the negotiations have yet to be worked out, but the Pakistani leader said yesterday: "History has been made. This is a ... good beginning." He praised Mr Vajpayee's vision and statesmanship, a sharp contrast to the tension of 2002, when more than a million men were deployed along the border and the Indian leader spoke of the need for "a decisive battle". General Musharraf promised to meet the threat with "full force".

Militants on both sides could threaten any accord, however. The negotiations were called a "betrayal" by Amanullah Khan, chairman of the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front, which seeks independence. Syed Salahuddin, head of Hezb-ul Mujahedin, the main Muslim militant group fighting in Kashmir, said operations would continue until India released jailed Kashmiri leaders and withdrew its troops to barracks.

Sceptics will point to the shortlived history of previous reconciliations. In 2001 there was similar talk of a breakthrough after the two leaders met in the Indian city of Agra, only for hopes of improved relations to evaporate almost immediately. Diplomats argue that the previous meeting was almost impromptu, whereas the latest deal has been preceded by careful preparation and a series of goodwill gestures, including a ceasefire in Kashmir which has held for several weeks.