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Last Updated: Tuesday, 27 January, 2004, 17:37 GMT
India and Pakistan set talks date
Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf (R) shakes hands with Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee
Vajpayee [L] and Musharraf agreed to talks at a summit this month
India and Pakistan will hold three days of talks in Islamabad starting on 16 February, with the disputed region of Kashmir top of the agenda.

Indian and Pakistani foreign ministry spokesmen revealed the date simultaneously on Tuesday.

The two countries agreed earlier this month to hold talks on all issues affecting bilateral ties.

The nations have fought three wars since independence in 1947, two of them over Kashmir.

Musharraf optimistic

"To commence the process of composite dialogue, India and Pakistan have agreed to meet from February 16 to 18 in Islamabad," Navtej Sarna said in Delhi.

"Joint secretary level talks on February 16 and 17 will be followed by a one-day meeting of foreign secretaries on February 18."

There has been an ebb in violent incidents here and infiltration [of cross-border rebels] is down
LK Advani, Indian deputy premier

Pakistani foreign ministry spokesman Masood Khan confirmed the same details in a press conference in Islamabad.

Indian Deputy Prime Minister LK Advani, visiting the Line of Control that separates Pakistani and Indian-administered Kashmir on Tuesday, said there was now a "sea change" in the political atmosphere in Kashmir.

"There has been an ebb in violent incidents here and infiltration [of cross-border rebels] is down," he said.

This week Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf told the BBC a solution could be found to the Kashmir dispute if both sides showed flexibility.

The agreement to hold talks was made by President Musharraf and Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee at the South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation (Saarc) forum in Islamabad this month.

The composite dialogue means all bilateral issues will be covered. Previously Pakistan had demanded Kashmir be tackled before other matters.

Militant problem

The talks mark the latest step in a recent thaw in relations which nose-dived with an attack on the Indian parliament by suspected Islamic militants in December 2001.

Last April, Mr Vajpayee offered a gesture of friendship in a landmark speech in Indian-administered Kashmir.

India and Pakistan then re-established top-level diplomatic ties and resumed some transport links.

Kashmiri separatist leader Maulana Abbas Ansari
Separatist Maulana Abbas Ansari has held talks with Indian leaders

Since November a ceasefire has held along the Line of Control.

This month the first steps of the new dialogue were taken when moderate Kashmir separatists met the Indian leadership.

They agreed a joint statement calling for an end to Kashmir violence.

Correspondents say the main difficulty will be in persuading militants to lay down their weapons.

Several Islamic militant groups have already pledged to continue their armed campaign until Indian troops leave Kashmir.

Mr Vajpayee and President Musharraf will both approach February's talks from positions of domestic strength.

The Indian prime minister has a string of recent state electoral victories and his right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party is well positioned for general elections expected in April or May.

President Musharraf recently won vital backing for his presidency after two-thirds of parliament voted in favour of his constitutional amendments.

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