January 16, 2006

Little hope ahead of India-Pakistan peace talks

By Y.P. Rajesh

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India and Pakistan begin a new round
of peace talks this week but the nuclear-armed rivals are
unlikely to end a stalemate that has tarnished the process,
analysts say.

The two-day talks starting on Tuesday in New Delhi between
Indian Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran and his Pakistani
counterpart Riaz Mohammad Khan mark the start of a third round
of negotiations between the neighbors, who were near the brink
of war four years ago before launching peace moves.

Talks and summits between leaders of the two countries
since have helped the nuclear-armed nations mend ties and build
trust through a series of symbolic steps.

But continued militant violence in disputed Kashmir -- at
the heart of India-Pakistan enmity -- and elsewhere across
India, coupled with New Delhi's refusal to make concessions in
the troubled region until violence ends, have pushed the
two-year peace process into the freezer.

"It would not be an exaggeration to say that the entire
peace process is now hanging by a thread," Indian columnist
Prem Shankar Jha wrote in the latest edition of Outlook weekly.

"There are many indications that patience is wearing thin
on both sides."

New Delhi is upset over what it says is Islamabad's failure
to keep its promise made during the launch of the peace process
that it would curb Islamist militants fighting against Indian
rule in Kashmir and known to have their bases in Pakistan.

Bombings in New Delhi in October that killed 66 people and
a shooting at a science university in the technology hub of
Bangalore -- both blamed on Pakistani militants -- further
fueled anger.

Islamabad says it has done its best to tackle the militants
and violence will only end fully after New Delhi cuts troop
levels in Kashmir and moves toward resolving the territorial
dispute that caused two of three wars between the two nations.

A devastating earthquake centered in Pakistani Kashmir in
October which killed at least 75,000 people was seen as an
opportunity to bring the neighbors closer together, but the
chill remained.


Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, in an interview with
an Indian TV channel this month, said he was disappointed with
the peace process although the Pakistani foreign ministry later
said prospects for progress were not all that bleak.

At their previous formal talks in September, Saran and Khan
agreed to continue the dialogue despite a lack of progress on
Kashmir -- where a 16-year insurgency has killed tens of
thousands. They also finalized a pact on notifying each other
about ballistic missile tests.

This time around, a similar but stronger reiteration by the
two sides of their original commitment to bring peace to the
subcontinent was needed to halt the peace process from sliding
further downhill, analysts said.

Cutting troop levels on the Siachen Glacier, the world's
highest battlefield located in northern Kashmir where more
Indian and Pakistani troops have died due to the weather than
gunfire, was one area where the foreign secretaries could make
progress, one Indian security analyst said.

"The demilitarization of the Siachen conflict zone is an
idea whose time has come," said Gurmeet Kanwal, head of
security studies at New Delhi-based Observer Research

"It will act as a confidence-building measure of immense
significance and a catalyst for peace."

Pakistani analysts were not optimistic.

"They will agree to continue talks, but nothing substantial
will be agreed upon," said Pakistani analyst Hasan Askari
Rizvi. "They have no other choice. They can't go back to
confrontation again."

(Additional reporting by Zeeshan Haider in ISLAMABAD)