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India and Pakistan agree to widen peace dialogue

Kashmir seen key among issues

NEW DELHI -- Nuclear rivals India and Pakistan agreed yesterday to widen their peace dialogue in talks that focused on eight festering issues, including the decades-old dispute over the Himalayan region of Kashmir.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India reiterated his nation's commitment to peace with Pakistan. At his first news conference since his Congress party unexpectedly swept to power in May, he said the people of South Asia were ''bound together by a shared destiny."

Pakistan's foreign minister, Khurshid Kasuri, said settling the five-decades-long conflict over Kashmir is the key to peace.

The talks yesterday between India's foreign secretary, Shyam Saran, and his Pakistani counterpart, Riaz Khokhar, were ''productive," the rival South Asian nations said in a joint statement afterward.

The two foreign secretaries will recommend ''further deepening and broadening the engagement between the two sides," the statement said.

The talks cleared the way for a new dialogue between the neighboring countries' foreign ministers. India's external affairs minister, Natwar Singh, and Kasuri are expected to meet today and tomorrow in New Delhi.

The Indian prime minister said he was committed to ''the peace process and to carrying forward the dialogue process."

''Our approach to talks will be based on realism and the belief that the people of South Asia are bound together by a shared destiny," said Manmohan Singh, dressed in a traditional white tunic and blue Sikh turban.

He promised to visit Kashmir soon, saying his government was ''alive to the sentiments and concerns of the people of Jammu and Kashmir."

India and Pakistan have gone to war twice over Kashmir, which is divided between the two countries and which both claim in its entirety.

''A resolution of the Kashmir issue alone will guarantee peace and security in South Asia," Kasuri said in a statement issued before he headed to New Delhi. This is ''not the time for tall promises, but for investment of time and energy in solving problems which I do not find intractable," he said.

Rebel groups have been fighting Indian security forces since 1989, seeking the independence of Muslim-majority Kashmir from predominantly Hindu India or its merger with mostly Muslim Pakistan.

More than 65,000 people have been killed in the conflict.

New Delhi has long accused Islamabad of arming and training Islamic militant groups who cross to the Indian side of Kashmir. Islamabad denies giving material help to the militants.

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