ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - India and Pakistan agreed yesterday to start formal peace talks next month, ending more than two years of confrontation between the nuclear-armed neighbors that almost exploded into all-out war.
Details such as precisely when and where the talks would begin, and who would open the negotiations, still must be worked out. But India accepted Pakistan's long-standing demand that all bilateral issues - not just the dispute over the Himalayan territory of Kashmir - be on the table.
Pakistan's President Gen. Pervez Musharraf called the deal a historic breakthrough that he hopes will finally resolve a 56-year dispute over Kashmir, which is divided between India and Pakistan. The region has been torn by guerrilla war and terrorist attacks since separatists began fighting Indian rule in the area in 1989.
"There are no winners and losers here," Musharraf said. "I think the victory is for the world, for all the peace-loving people of the world."
Hopes for lasting peace between India and Pakistan have been raised, and dashed, by successive leaders for decades, so it is anyone's guess whether Musharraf and Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee will succeed this time.
But both say they are driven by the desire of ordinary citizens in South Asia to end old conflicts so money can be spent on reducing the world's largest population of poor people instead of building up armies.
The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks against the United States and the subsequent war in Afghanistan also put foreign pressure on India and Pakistan to resolve the conflict over Kashmir, a key battleground for Islamic extremists and militants linked to the al-Qaida terrorist network.
Political pressures are working against a deal, though. At 79, Vajpayee is not expected to finish out a five-year term if he is re-elected prime minister this year. A front-runner to take over power if Vajpayee retires is his hawkish deputy prime minister, Lal Krishna Advani.
Pakistani officials claim Advani scuttled an agreed "road map" for peace at a Musharraf-Vajpayee summit in July 2001 - an allegation that India denies.
Musharraf faces his own political problems. To secure his hold on power until 2007, he has made deals with hard-line Islamic parties to whom Kashmir is a sacred cause. He now has to persuade the mullahs, and militant groups based in Pakistan, to make the difficult compromises required for peace.
Yesterday's agreement came after Musharraf met face-to-face Monday with Vajpayee, who went to Islamabad for a regional leaders' summit and had insisted that if he decided to meet with Pakistani leaders on the sidelines, he would not discuss anything significant.
But Pakistani and Indian officials, including Vajpayee's national security adviser, Brajesh Mishra, were already negotiating a new start to peace talks behind the scenes.
Vajpayee, who says he is making his last effort for peace in his lifetime, called Musharraf yesterday morning and "sealed this final deal," Musharraf said.
"I would like to give total credit to his vision and his statesmanship," Musharraf told reporters at his presidential palace. He later added: "History has been made in that we have arrived at an agreement on taking this normalization process forward and a framework taking it to its logical end."
Vajpayee left Islamabad yesterday without commenting on the agreement. With elections looming, Vajpayee must be careful not to rile Hindu nationalists who insist India must never give up its claim to all of Kashmir.
Relations between India and Pakistan have suffered sudden, often violent, mood swings since Britain divided the subcontinent and granted the two countries independence in 1947. They have fought three wars since then, two of them over Kashmir.
Highlighting the broad gulf that still divides the two, yesterday's agreement was announced in separate news conferences at which the Indian and Pakistani foreign ministers read out identical, carefully negotiated statements.
Still, the two leaders agreed on three critical points. First, the talks will be "a composite dialogue" on all bilateral issues - including trade and energy resources - not only Kashmir. Second, confidence-building steps, such as renewed air and road links, and promises of more people-to-people contacts, must be consolidated and increased. Third, territory that Pakistan controls cannot be used to support any terrorism.
Musharraf's commitment on the third point persuaded Vajpayee to agree to negotiations, Indian Foreign Minister Yaswant Sinha said. Although Musharraf has made such pledges before, a reported meeting last week between Vajpayee's national security adviser and the chief of Musharraf's Inter-Services Intelligence agency - which neither side has denied took place - might have been crucial to persuading India that Musharraf will deliver on his promises this time.
As recently as last month, Indian officials had said militants were continuing to infiltrate from Pakistan-controlled areas. While the number of infiltrators has lessened, such a decrease is normal when heavy snow closes most of the main infiltration routes.
Yesterday, the leader of the United Jihad Council, an alliance of militant groups fighting Indian rule in Kashmir, dismissed the new agreement as little more than a piece of paper and insisted separatists would not cease fire as India and Pakistan negotiate.
Syed Salahuddin, who also heads the largest Pakistan-based militant group in Kashmir, criticized the Musharraf-Vajpayee accord for not naming Kashmiris as a party to the conflict.
"If India continues to act as it was acting in the past, then this declaration will go in the trash of history like previous declarations," Salahuddin warned in a telephone interview.
"India has to prove its sincerity," he said. "If it agrees to close its torture cells and sends its troops back to barracks and releases hundreds of Kashmiri prisoners detained on highly frivolous charges, the militants on both sides of the Line of Control can announce a cease-fire."
One possible solution to the Kashmir dispute would be to turn the Line of Control, a cease-fire line agreed in 1971, into an international border. But that idea is fiercely opposed by hard-liners in both India and Pakistan, as well as many ordinary Kashmiris who feel caught in the middle and betrayed by all sides.
Musharraf said he met with Kashmiri leaders before Vajpayee's visit and would do so again to "explain the nuances" of yesterday's accord.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.