The foreign ministers of India and Pakistan spoke of entering a new era in relations between their nuclear-armed nations, after meeting Wednesday for the first time since bilateral peace talks resumed this year.
While no major breakthroughs on their thorny disputes had been expected, the two agreed to work more closely in fighting terrorism and to ease commerce and travel across the U.N.-drawn Line of Control dividing their nations.
The Himalayan territory of Kashmir _ a major source of tension that fueled two of three wars fought by the rivals since 1947 _ will continue to be discussed "with a view to finding a peaceful solution," Indian Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna said. Both nations claim the whole territory now split between them and maintain heavy deployments along the border.
Pakistan's newly installed foreign minister, Hina Rabbani Khar, had raised eyebrows in India by meeting Tuesday with Kashmiri separatists, who openly oppose India's heavy-handed rule and argue Kashmiris should vote to decide the territory's final status. India has refused any such referendum, accusing Pakistan of fomenting conflict by arming and training rebels. Pakistan denies this and says it provides only moral and diplomatic support in backing the call for self-determination.
Nevertheless, the two sides described their talks Wednesday as constructive and cordial, agreeing on several measures toward improving life for Kashmiris, increasing the number of cross-border trading days from two to four and expediting travel permits, including for tourism and religious pilgrimage.
They discussed security cooperation, and reiterated their commitment to fighting terrorism with the aim of stabilizing the region. They also agreed their countries' should explore dialogue on nuclear issues beginning in September _ marking the first time they might share nuclear information since the late 1990s when both were conducting nuclear tests.
"This is indeed a new era of bilateral cooperation between the two countries, and it is our desire ... to make it an uninterrupted and an uninterruptible process," the Pakistani minister said after the talks. "There has been a mindset change in the people of the two countries that we must acknowledge."
The meeting was a major milestone in the new round of peace talks that began in February. India suspended an earlier round of talks after 10 Pakistani-based gunmen laid siege to the city of Mumbai in 2008, killing 166 people. India has argued that Pakistani intelligence helped plan that attack and that Pakistan has not done enough to crack down on those behind it.
Despite a July 13 triple bombing in Mumbai that killed 20 people, neither side backed away from the new round of talks. India's investigation into that attack has focused on a shadowy domestic terror group reportedly linked to Pakistani militants, but top government officials have been reluctant to point fingers, calling for patience as the investigation proceeds.
Krishna said after Wednesday's meeting that, though challenges lie ahead, "I can confidently say that relations are on the right track."
They agreed to hold new talks in the first half of next year, with expert groups meeting first in September. In the meantime, India's minister for industry and commerce has invited his Pakistani counterpart to visit.
The two countries' foreign ministers last met a year ago in Islamabad in a tense meeting that erupted into accusations that both sides were fomenting terror attacks on each other. Since February, however, the two sides have discussed a range of issues including terrorism threats, cooperation on the Mumbai investigation and Kashmir. Their prime minister even watched an Indian-Pakistan cricket match together in March.
Security analyst C. Uday Bhaskar expressed cautious optimism about Wednesday's meeting, suggesting the foreign ministers had likely left the toughest issues for later, though "for the local people in Kashmir, this has improved the situation in a significant way."
The ministers "have gone for the lowest-hanging fruit, improving cross-border travel, setting up committees. They are baby steps," Bhaskar said. "Against the backdrop of Mumbai 2008, what has been achieved by the two foreign ministers is as much as possible, even if modest."
Khar was also meeting with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the leader of the opposition before flying Thursday back to Lahore, Pakistan.
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