Indian, Pakistani PMs agree to reduce Kashmir tensions

Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif (left) shakes hands with India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh during the United Nations General Assembly at the New York Palace hotel in New York on Sept 29, 2013. The leaders of India and Pakistan pledged on S
Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif (left) shakes hands with India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh during the United Nations General Assembly at the New York Palace hotel in New York on Sept 29, 2013. The leaders of India and Pakistan pledged on Sunday to restore calm on their disputed border in Kashmir, with New Delhi demanding action before any improvement in relations. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW YORK (AFP) - The leaders of India and Pakistan pledged on Sunday to restore calm on their disputed border in Kashmir, with New Delhi demanding action before any improvement in relations.

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who has advocated an end to historic tensions with India since he swept to power in May elections, held his first meeting with his counterpart Manmohan Singh on the sidelines of the annual UN summit.

An Indian official said that the two leaders, who met for more than an hour in a New York hotel, decided to task senior military officers to "find effective means to restore the ceasefire" in divided Kashmir.

"Both agreed that the precondition for forward movement in the relationship, which they both desire, is really an improvement of the situation on the LoC," Indian national security adviser Shivshankar Menon told reporters, referring to the Line of Control in the Himalayan territory.

Pakistani and Indian troops earlier this year clashed in some of their worst skirmishes in a decade in Kashmir, which is claimed in full by both nuclear-armed rivals.

Three days before the New York talks, militants raided an army base on the Indian side of Kashmir, killing 10 people.

India accuses Pakistan of sponsoring militants, but violence has subsided sharply since the two countries entered a ceasefire in 2003.

Pakistani Foreign Secretary Jalil Abbas Jilani confirmed that the two prime ministers agreed that the ceasefire "should be respected in letter and spirit." And he played down India's warnings that the relationship hinged on calm in Kashmir, calling the meeting "extremely positive" and saying Mr Sharif was committed to a "peaceful and sustained dialogue" with India.

Mr Sharif, who was elected on promises to revive Pakistan's troubled economy, has moved quickly to ease concerns in India.

In a speech before the UN General Assembly on Friday, Mr Sharif called for a "new beginning" with India and said that the two developing nations had wasted money through their decades of intense military buildup.

But India has been pressing for concrete action by Pakistan since the sensational 2008 assault on Mumbai, in which Islamic militants laid siege to an iconic hotel and killed 166 people.

The two sides both said that Mr Sharif committed to acting against militants linked to the attack, some of whom live virtually in the open in Pakistan.

Mr Jilani said that efforts would move forward after a recent trip to Mumbai of a Pakistani judicial committee that cross-examined witnesses.

"I have absolutely no doubt...that this trial process will be speeded up," he said.

While Mr Sharif is fresh into his term, the 81-year-old Singh is likely to end his decade in office next year as he is not expected to lead his Congress Party in general elections.

India's main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, which is hoping to capitalise on corruption scandals and recent economic uncertainties, has tapped as its electoral candidate Narendra Modi, a Hindu nationalist and strident past critic of Pakistan.

Dr Singh, who had resisted pressure to launch a military attack in retaliation for the Mumbai assault, criticised Pakistan as "the epicentre of terrorism" in a speech Saturday from the UN podium.

Mr Menon said that Dr Singh listened to proposals from Sharif for cooperation in trade and other areas but replied: "All that will be possible once we have dealt with the immediate issue and the immediate situation we face." "As for how useful and productive the meeting was, I think the only proof will be in the months to come," Mr Menon added.

Mr Sharif and Dr Singh extended invitations to visit the other country, but no dates were set, Mr Menon and Mr Jilani said.

Dr Singh has held off on visiting Pakistan, which has invited him to return to see the town where he was born before the subcontinent's partition in 1947 or to make a pilgrimage to holy sites of his Sikh faith.

Mr Sharif has maintained relations in the past with Islamist groups and was prime minister in 1999 when Pakistan-allied forces sneaked into the remote Kargil area of Indian Kashmir, setting off a mini-war.

The Kargil conflict came just months after then Indian prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee travelled to Pakistan to see Mr Sharif with high hopes of reconciliation.

Mr Sharif, who said he was unaware of the Kargil incursion, was deposed later that year by the military.