|Saturday, 19 June 2004|
India, Pakistan gear up for historic nuclear security talks
NEW DELHI, Friday (AFP) Two years after lurching towards war and sparking fears of a nuclear meltdown in South Asia, rivals India and Pakistan come together this weekend to discuss ways to reduce such potentially cataclysmic risks.
Anti-nuclear activists are demanding that both sides agree to dismantle warheads from missiles and that the arch-rivals institute safeguards against accidental use of their weapons of mass destruction.
But in Islamabad, Pakistani foreign office spokesman Masood Khan said the discussions in New Delhi would focus on "strategic stability, nuclear crisis management, risk reduction and coordinated as well as responsible stewardship".
The talks will also coincide with a meeting of the two countries' foreign ministers in China on the sidelines of a regional conference - their first exchange since a change of government in New Delhi.
"Since India now has a less hawkish government and Pakistan is now an ally of the United States, one would expect tangible confidence-building measures (CBMs) from the talks," said Jay Prakash of the Delhi Science Forum, one of India's top disarmament groups.
The former government of Hindu nationalist premier Atal Behari Vajpayee conducted nuclear weapons tests in May 1998, prompting Pakistan to carry out tit-for-tat tests a few days later - which drew a slew of US-led sanctions against both.
The two South Asian neighbours, who have fought three wars since 1947, have refused to endorse nuclear non-proliferation treaties.
Islamabad and New Delhi, however, agreed to discuss confidence-building measures and launch a dialogue after a landmark pact between Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and Vajpayee in January to resolve all issues, including the dispute over Kashmir.
Disarmament groups in both countries appeared gladdened by Musharraf's recent statement that Pakistan was prepared to cut down its nuclear arsenal if India did the same, but experts said mere pledges would be futile. "We don't have any worldwide military ambitions. We maintain a force for deterrence," Musharraf said in Dubai on June 4 and offered to make South Asia a "nuclear-free zone" if India agreed.
Strategic analyst Raja Mohan said the two sides - who moved towards nuclear war twice in 2002 following an attack on the Indian parliament in December 2001 by Islamic insurgents which New Delhi blamed on Islamabad - must focus on practical steps to enhance nuclear security.
"For India and Pakistan, the priority on the nuclear front is to put in place effective CBMs and avoid such unverifiable proposals as non-deployment of nuclear weapons," Mohan said.
"The two sides must also prepare to launch a broader military-strategic dialogue that will avoid the prospect of even a conventional war in the (South Asian) subcontinent," Mohan said in recently published comments.
Anti-nuclear activists warn that since neither India nor Pakistan have the technology to recall a nuclear-tipped missile fired in error, an accidental launch could trigger an unimaginable holocaust in the region of 1.5 billion people.
"And so, as we welcome the proposed bilateral talks on a number of issues including nuclear risk reduction measures (NRRM), we are opposed to the long-range missiles in their possession," said Veenita Bal, of the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace (CNDP).
Produced by Lake House