Pakistan and India raise hopes of ending bitter nuclear stand-off

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The Independent Online

It will take much to repair the damage wrought by half a century of hostility that has produced three wars and a swath of graveyards. Whatever happens on the sidelines of the economic summit that opens tomorrow in Islamabad will not come close to achieving this task. But there is a glimmer of hope that it might start to shift one of the world's political log-jams, the dispute between the nuclear-armed neighbours India and Pakistan.

It will take much to repair the damage wrought by half a century of hostility that has produced three wars and a swath of graveyards. Whatever happens on the sidelines of the economic summit that opens tomorrow in Islamabad will not come close to achieving this task. But there is a glimmer of hope that it might start to shift one of the world's political log-jams, the dispute between the nuclear-armed neighbours India and Pakistan.

The first commercial flight between Pakistan and India for two years arrived in Delhi from Lahore yesterday, as part of a series of confidence-building measures including the restoration of bus services. On New Year's Eve, as the region's attention began to focus on the approaching summit, Delhi deftly proposed more steps: relaxed travel restrictions on diplomats in one another's capitals; larger missions and talks on opening more bus routes.

It is a beginning. The pressure on the two country's leaders to proceed along the road to peace is intensifying. Atal Bihari Vajpayee, India's Prime Minister, and General Pervez Musharraf, the military ruler of Pakistan, will be brought together tomorrow - the first time in two years - for a meeting of the seven-nation South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation (SAARC).

Although they do not formally have a bilateral meeting planned at the SAARC summit, expectations of progress are running so high - hundreds of journalists have descended on Islamabad for the occasion - that it is hard to believe that they will not come up with something, even if it is only an expression of good intentions.

Two assassination attempts last month against the Pakistani President have turned his capital into a near fortress and the meeting into an anxious occasion. The leaders will travel in armoured cars equipped with electronic jamming devices - a precaution against bombs detonated by remote control - and guarded by 7,000 troops and police, military helicopters and Pakistan's formidable intelligence apparatus.

An attack on the Indian parliament, which Delhi blamed on Pakistan, took relations to such a low that, by 2002, the two sides had massed their armies along the border, producing a full-blown international crisis that sent foreign expatriates fleeing home. But the two countries have been edging towards one another during the past nine months. Mr Vajpayee suggested in April one more effort at reconciliation.

At first, this seemed destined to be consumed by the acrimony and suspicion that has bedevilled relations between the rivals for decades, stunting the region's economic growth. But a thaw has tentatively set in.

The process has not been without hazards, particularly for the Pakistani leader. General Musharraf was trying to balance his unavoidable subscription to the US "war on terror", angering a significant element within his 150 million population. So, too, has the recent questioning of Pakistan's top nuclear scientists - again the result of American pressure - over the transfer of atomic technology to Iran and North Korea.

The most combustible issue remains Kashmir, the divided Muslim-majority mountain enclave where tens of thousands have lost their lives in a Pakistani-backed separatist uprising against Indian rule.But the slow warming of relations surprisingly reached Kashmir on 23 November, when Pakistan offered a unilateral ceasefire. A startled India swiftly accepted.

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