ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - The top diplomats of Pakistan and India met in Islamabad on Thursday, emerging from talks to signal a joint resolve against militant extremism and hinting that more comprehensive discussions may be renewed.
It was the second meeting in four months between Foreign Secretaries Salman Bashir and Nirupama Rao, of Pakistan and India, respectively.
The two last met in New Delhi - the first official talks between the two sides since the 2008 Mumbai attacks - but those discussions were seen as having achieved little.
On Thursday, however, both sides said the talks were marked by “a great deal of cordiality, sincerity and earnestness,” that will pave the way for a more comprehensive dialogue, signalling a possible - and unexpected - thaw.
“I believe we must work together to deal with that threat and we must deny terrorist elements any opportunity to derail the process of improvement of relations between our two countries,” Rao told a joint news conference.
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Security is high on India’s list of concerns with Pakistan, with New Delhi accusing Islamabad of supporting militant groups in a bid to wrest control of India’s part of Kashmir and check rising Indian influence in Afghanistan.
Tackling militant groups such as Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT)- blamed by India for the Mumbai attack, which killed 166 people - has been a precondition of India for restarting comprehensive talks over water, Kashmir and other disputes.
Pakistan has been reluctant to do so, and has done little against LeT’s founder, Hafiz Saeed, who remains a free man.
Rao seemed to signal that India’s position on future talks might be softening.
“There was a lot of soul-searching here,” she said. “The searchlight is on the future, not on the past.”
Pakistan welcomed the apparent softening of India’s attitude.
“After this engagement, I feel much more optimistic and confident about a good outcome at the ministerial level and good prospects for the two countries in terms of their relationship,” Bashir said.
Prime ministers Yusuf Raza Gilani of Pakistan and Monmohan Singh of India met in Bhutan in April on the sidelines of a regional summit in a bid to restart talks between the two nuclear-armed rivals.
The Mumbai attack pitched relations into a diplomatic deep-freeze. The renewed tension, along with the proxy war, is seen as hampering U.S.-led efforts to bring peace to Afghanistan.
Rao said the two prime ministers had asked their foreign ministers and foreign secretaries to meet “as soon as possible to work out the modalities for restoring trust” and taking the dialogue forward.
Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi said the climate of talks had changed for the better and the two leaders had asked their officials to meet as frequently as possible.
“I don’t think either side was expecting such a positive turn in dialogue,” Qureshi told reporters. “It was a step in the right direction and it was in the right spirit.”
While Thursday’s meeting showed that both sides may be willing to focus on improving ties, there are also fears that strong domestic concerns may stop them from making the concessions needed for a breakthrough.
One risk to normalising relations is that another major militant attack in India and the subsequent domestic political pressure could force the government to break off dialogue again.
India’s Intelligence Bureau issued an alert on a possible militant attack on Thursday. Local media reports, citing unnamed sources, said a militant strike was aimed at sabotaging talks.
“A terror alert has been issued by the Intelligence Bureau,” confirmed Onkar Kedia, a spokesman for the Home Ministry, speaking to Reuters by telephone.
(Additional reporting by Zeeshan Haider; Writing and editing by Chris Allbritton and by Ron Popeski)
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