The leaders of India and Pakistan met Monday for the first time in more than two years, seeking to cast aside the enmity that took their nuclear-armed countries to the brink of war in 2002.
Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf talked for an hour and five minutes on the sidelines of a South Asia summit, according to Pakistan’s Information Minister Sheikh Rashid.
“Detailed discussions were held,” he said, adding that the two men had discussed disputed Kashmir among other things. “The meeting was held in a good atmosphere.”
“Right now the knots are being unraveled for a declaration,” Rashid told Pakistan state television, speaking in Urdu but using the English word “declaration.”
Vajpayee and Musharraf smiled and shook hands before taking their seats. Facing forward about a meter (yard) apart, they then turned to chat to each other for the benefit of the cameras before the meeting got under way properly.
Speaking before the meeting, Vajpayee, on his first visit to Pakistan in almost five years, called for talks between the neighbors to resolve disputes that have plagued relations since independence from Britain in 1947.
“It is necessary that the two countries have adequate representation and that dialogue goes on continuously, that we understand each other’s difficulties and find a way out together,” he said in a speech.
Pakistan has been pushing for an agreement to start a “structured” dialogue over Kashmir, and foreign ministry spokesman Masood Khan called Monday’s meeting “a good beginning.”
Vajpayee’s meeting with Musharraf, who survived two assassination attempts last month, was held under heavy security on the sidelines of a summit of the seven-nation South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation.
The other nations at the summit, which is discussing ways to integrate their economies, are Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka.
Diplomats said Vajpayee’s meeting with Musharraf was a step forward in the process of rebuilding relations.
“It really is a fundamental step forward when you look at how far we’ve come in the last few months,” said one Western diplomat. “But the big question is whether they have moved any closer to each other on the core issue of Kashmir.”
Kashmir is the main obstacle to progress between the two countries. It has been divided between the rivals since a war that followed independence. The bitter dispute has cost tens of thousands of lives since then.
Two years ago the neighbors came to the brink of another war over Kashmir after an attack on the parliament in New Delhi that India blamed on Pakistan-backed militants.
But in April, the 79-year-old Vajpayee launched a final bid for peace in his lifetime. Since then full diplomatic relations have been resumed and some travel links have been reinstated.
Perhaps the biggest breakthrough came in November when Pakistan announced a cease-fire along the front line in Kashmir. That has since held, though violence has continued in Indian Kashmir between security forces and Muslim separatist rebels.
With Vajpayee expected to stand down at elections later this year and Musharraf promising to give up his army uniform at the end of 2004 # although he will remain president # diplomats say both men appear keen to move the process forward.
What is less clear is if they will find any middle ground.
“These are two men who both have an eye on their place in history,” said a diplomat. “But there is an awfully long way to go once the two countries get to the negotiating table over Kashmir.”
India controls 45 percent of the mainly Muslim former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir, including the real bone of contention, the stunning Kashmir valley itself.
Pakistan, which controls about a third of the region, is accused by India of fomenting rebellion in Indian Kashmir. It denies the charge and counters by accusing Indian security forces of widespread human rights abuses in the Kashmir valley.
China controls a small chunk of territory in the northeast.
Vajpayee and Musharraf last held talks at a failed summit in the Indian city of Agra in July 2001, though they shook hands briefly at the last SAARC summit in Kathmandu two years ago and did so again ahead of a state dinner Sunday night.
In Monday’s meeting, they were accompanied by their foreign ministers, foreign secretaries and high commissioners.
Pakistan’s Finance Minister Shaukat Aziz and India’s National Security Adviser Brajesh Mishra were also present.
Sunday, Vajpayee also met Pakistan’s Prime Minister Zafarullah Khan Jamali for around 30 minutes.