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Terrorism lingers over India-Pakistan peace talks

NEW DELHI, India — Terrorism was a top item during the first formal India-Pakistan peace talks between the nuclear-armed rivals since the Mumbai attacks of November 2008.

NEW DELHI, India — Terrorism was a top item during the first formal India-Pakistan peace talks between the nuclear-armed rivals since the Mumbai attacks of November 2008.

Pakistani Foreign Minister Salman Bashir met his Indian counterpart, Nirupama Rao, in India’s capital on Thursday, 15 months after the attacks, which many in India blamed on Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Agency (ISI). The assault on India’s financial capital, which killed 174 people, prompted India to suspend a formal peace process with its neighbor.

Ms Rao called Thursday’s meeting “a first step toward rebuilding trust,” but she also expressed concerns about terror groups operating inside Pakistan.

Speaking at a news conference following the meeting, Rao said she reiterated to Mr. Bashir that Pakistan must do more to dismantle terror networks and gave him dossiers on those linked to the Mumbai attacks, an al-Qaida-linked militant who has issued threats against India, and Indian fugitives hiding in Pakistan.

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Bashir, for his part, said: “As far as the issue of Mumbai is concerned, Pakistan has done everything that was proper and could be done.”

Since the Mumbai attacks, India has been largely terror free, which has allowed Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to push ahead for dialogue with Pakistan, despite popular opposition.

But on Feb. 13, a day after the date for new talks was announced, a bomb ripped through a cafe in Pune, in the southern state of Maharashtra, killing 16 people. Indian authorities are investigating whether the attack was organized by Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), the Pakistani militant group held responsible for the Mumbai carnage, but no firm link has yet been verified.

The blast in Pune made India ever keener to put terrorism top of the agenda Thursday and in any subsequent talks. In particular, India wants to focus on its demands for Pakistan to crack down on militant groups including LeT.

“I think Pakistan has to show it is coming out of denial mode about terrorism,” says Ajit Doval, the former director of the Intelligence Bureau of India. “It sends a very negative signal if it does not put a proper ban on LeT. We cannot move ahead until it takes serious action on terrorist groups that are targeting India. If it does that, let’s go ahead.”

Talking about talks

Thursday’s meeting was more about symbolism than substance – at best, say analysts, it may lead to a resumption of the formal “composite dialogue” peace process started in 2004. Though on Thursday neither side gave a date for their next meeting.

Over the past year, the two countries have been holding backchannel talks to this end, encouraged by the United States and other Western governments, which see the dialogue as an important cornerstone for a stable Afghanistan. While Pakistan’s disputes with India continue to boil, its army is considered likely to maintain links with militants there.

“The resumption of India-Pakistan dialogue is apparently closely linked with US moves in Afghanistan in the context of President Obama’s publicly declared intent to begin the process of US military withdrawal from Afghanistan from 2011,” wrote P.K. Upadhyay, a consultant with the New Delhi-based Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, a think tank, in a paper published on its website.

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Core dispute: Kashmir

The composite dialogue process was organized to address disputes over a range of issues, including cross-border trade, water, and, most importantly, Kashmir, which lies at the heart of India and Pakistan’s enmity. The Himalayan region, which is divided between India and Pakistan, but claimed in its entirety by both, has sparked two wars since the region gained independence from Britain in 1947.

After 2004, when the two countries began to talk peace, cross-border violence in Kashmir dropped significantly. A deal was nearly reached in 2007 to set up a joint mechanism to administer Kashmir, but its progress stalled when Pakistan’s then president, Pervez Musharraf, lost power.

Since the peace process was dropped in 2008, more reports have emerged of incursions into Indian-run Kashmir by militants allegedly backed by Pakistan.

Again, on this front, recent events have not been warming for diplomatic relations.

On Wednesday, India accused Pakistani border guards of firing at one of its posts across the frontier

The alleged shooting, which Pakistan denies took place, came immediately after three Indian soldiers were killed in a gun battle with suspected Islamic militants in Indian-controlled Kashmir.