India invites Pakistan to peace talks, Islamabad accepts
NEW DELHI, India (AP) – India on Wednesday invited Pakistani military ruler Pervez Musharraf to peace talks in an unexpected gesture aimed at ending five decades of hostility in Kashmir. Islamabad immediately accepted the offer.
Such talks would be the first by government officials from India and Pakistan since they came close to war while fighting on the Kashmir border in the summer of 1999.
”The prime minister has decided to invite Gen. Musharraf to visit India at his earliest convenience,” India’s Defense Minister Jaswant Singh said, adding that New Delhi is committed to ”peace, dialogue and cooperative coexistence with Pakistan.”
Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee would soon issue an official invitation, Singh said in a prepared statement.
In Islamabad, Pakistan’s Foreign Secretary Inam-ul Haq said Musharraf ”has expressed Pakistan’s willingness to hold talks with India at any level, any time and at any place.”
”Pakistan believes that a solution to the Kashmir dispute should be found through dialogue and in accordance with the wishes of the Kashmiri people,” Haq said on state-run Pakistan television.
India and Pakistan have fought two wars over control of Kashmir since they won independence from Britain in 1947. More than 30,000 people have been killed, the government says, though human rights groups put the death toll at twice that number.
Since late November, the Indian army has observed a cease-fire in Kashmir in an attempt to encourage peace talks, though it reserved the right to retaliate if attacked. Most of the Islamic militant groups rejected the truce and attacks persisted.
India on Wednesday abruptly called off the cease-fire in Kashmir, saying it had failed to quell the violence.
The cease-fire ”is now over,” Singh said. ”These terrorist groups have hindered the restoration of peace in Jammu and Kashmir and have inflicted misery upon the people of that state. Hereafter, security forces shall take such action against terrorists as they judge best.”
Saleem Hashmi, spokesman for the largest Kashmiri group, Hezb-ul Mujahdeen, said at least 421 civilians have been killed, more than 500 wounded and scores of guerrilla fighters killed by Indian forces in the last six months.
”The cease-fire never existed on the ground,” he said, while warning Musharraf against falling into ”the trap” of India’s offer to hold talks.
”It was an imaginary truce,” Hashmi said by telephone in Islamabad.
Wednesday’s developments came as a surprise to political observers in the Indian capital. Most had expected Singh to announce a fourth extension of the cease-fire, which had drawn a positive response from Pakistan.
Even though the cease-fire was rejected by Islamic guerrillas, Singh noted that the disputed frontier between the two countries, where artillery duels and small-arms fire were earlier a frequent occurrence, has been relatively quiet since November.
”The fact that Mr. Vajpayee has taken such a brave step shows that he is sincere … the ball is now firmly in the Pakistani court,” said independent defense analyst Manoj Joshi.
India has maintained that it would not hold peace talks with its South Asian neighbor unless Pakistan stops aiding, training and supplying the guerrillas.
Islamabad says it has no control over the rebels’ movement across the border and that it provides the rebels moral, not material support.
India controls two-thirds of the Himalayan region and Pakistan the remainder. Both claim Kashmir in its entirety.
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