May 23, 2006

India, Pakistan start talks over contested glacier

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Nuclear rivals India and Pakistan
started a fresh round of talks on Tuesday over the Siachen
glacier in Kashmir, where thousands of troops are holed up in
freezing temperatures in a costly standoff.

The two-day talks in New Delhi over the world's highest
battlefield follow local media reports in the past few months
that the two sides were inching toward a blueprint for a troop
pullout, though officials are tightlipped.

Both sides fielded large teams of bureaucrats and military
officers, headed by their respective defense secretaries.

The Siachen dialogue -- part of a wide-ranging peace
process -- comes a day ahead of a peace conference involving
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and some Kashmiri
separatist groups in Srinagar, the main city in India's Jammu
and Kashmir state.

Thousands of soldiers have died in Siachen, high in the
Himalayas, with more fatalities due to freezing temperatures,
high altitude sickness and avalanches than to enemy fire.

Though diplomatic, commercial, sporting and transport links
between India and Pakistan have improved since their peace
process started in January 2004, they have made little headway
over Kashmir, the cause of two of their three wars.

A key sticking point over Siachen is seen to be India's
demand that troop positions be marked on the ground and on a
map as evidence in case the area is occupied by Pakistan after
a pullout deal is reached.

The region has witnessed no fighting since late 2003, when
a cease-fire came into place on the militarized Kashmir

But analysts and Indian military officials say New Delhi's
security establishment remains distrustful of the Pakistan

They point out that in 1999, Pakistan-backed Islamist
infiltrators occupied the Kargil heights in northern Indian
Kashmir, and India lost hundreds of troops before re-occupying
the mountains after bitter fighting and a near war.

"Kargil made it very clear that if you leave any part of
your territory undefended, you cannot rule out the possibility
of the Pakistanis coming in," former Indian High Commissioner
to Pakistan G. Parthasarathy told Reuters.

But Pakistani analysts say Islamabad is uneasy about
marking positions, fearing it will legitimize India's hold in

Hopes of forward movement were raised last year after Singh
said he wanted to convert Siachen into a "peace mountain" as
both sides tried to push forward their cautious peace process,
complicated by an Islamist revolt in Kashmir.

New Delhi says the insurgency is aided by militants from
Pakistan, which Islamabad is not doing enough to stop.

Analysts do not expect a breakthrough in the third round of
Siachen talks since January 2004 but say dialogue is a good way
of building trust over the region.

"If nobody is shooting and killing each other; is that not
a gain?" Parthasarathy said.

"These talks help further to stabilize the situation."