Kashmir clash claims 49 lives as leaders meet

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The Independent Online

After more than two years of ominous silence, India and Pakistan are talking again. Yesterday, India's Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and Pakistan's military ruler, General Pervez Musharraf, held their first summit meeting in Agra, home of the Taj Mahal, and a spokesman called the encounter "very cordial, frank and constructive".

But as they met, Indian and Pakistani forces fired at each other over the Kashmiri border. Fighting between separatist rebels and soldiers killed 49 people at the weekend, officials said. It was the first exchange of gunfire over the border this year. Rebels in India's Jammu-Kashmir state had vowed to step up their attacks during the summit, which they oppose.

The one-on-one meeting between the two leaders was due to last 20 minutes but stretched to 90 minutes; a second meeting in the evening lasted for 60 minutes. There may be a third meeting today.

The squalid city of Agra, less than 200km (125 miles) from Delhi, was flooded with police for the summit, the road from the airport was cleared of all traffic and motorboats patrolled the Yamuna river.

General Musharraf, who has impressed India with his crisp, confident manner and his informality and directness, wore an open-necked shirt, stripped for business. Mr Vajpayee greeted him in the traditional Indian dress of a long, baggy kurta dhoti. With 19 years between them ­ Mr Vajpayee is 76 ­ it was hard not to see them as father and son.

The crucial encounter went well: the chemistry between two men who had never met, and who had long seen each other as enemies, duly happened. But for the journalists camped at Agra, pickings were slim. Questioned by the press at the Taj Mahal, General Musharraf would say only that the talks had been "fruitful".

High-level sources said there remained one key issue in contention ­ that General Musharraf wants ministerial-level contacts to discuss Kashmir, which Pakistan insists is the "core issue" between the two countries. Pakistan might then reciprocate by ensuring a reduction of violence in Kashmir, where the insurgency that began 11 years ago has killed 50,000 people.

Many of the militants fighting Indian forces in Kashmir come across the border from Pakistan, and India insists that they are trained, equipped and financed by Pakistan. Pakistan says it gives only moral support.

Kashmir is the roadblock to better relations in south Asia, and if Mr Vajpayee and General Musharraf can shift it they can address other pressing issues, such as nuclear security. Others include trade that is at derisory levels, easier travel between two countries with millions of divided families and the possibility of a natural gas pipeline from Iran to India through Pakistan. There is also an absurd and vicious war in the Siachen glacier, in the far north of Kashmir, that costs India alone £5m a week. Unless the two leaders can conjure the verbal resourcefulness to address Kashmir in a language that will satisfy their respective publics, then all these will remain in limbo.

While the talks remained inconclusive last night, there was relief that they had got off to a good start. Arun Jaitley, an Indian minister, said: "It's a positive beginning in that the two countries are now engaged in a dialogue." And the dialogue is due to continue: Mr Vajpayee accepted General Musharraf's invitation yesterday to a return fixture in Pakistan.

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