India, Pakistan ministers hail 'new era' in ties

India and Pakistan's foreign ministers insisted relations were back on track Wednesday after peace talks that highlighted a "new era" of cooperation over the ruptures of the past. Although their meeting in New Delhi produced little in the way of substantive agreements, the tone was one of forward-looking optimism that acknowledged a joint responsibility to bring stability to South Asia. It was the first meeting of the arch-rivals' foreign ministers for a year, and followed the formal resumption in February of the comprehensive peace dialogue suspended by India after the 2008 Mumbai attacks. After the talks, Indian Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna said ties were back "on the right track," while his Pakistani counterpart Hina Rabbani Khar spoke of a "mindset change" that had ushered in a "new era of cooperation". "We have some distance to travel, but with an open mind and a constructive approach ... I am sure we can reach our desired destination of having a friendly and cooperative relationship," Krishna said. India and Pakistan have fought three wars since independence in 1947, two of them triggered by their territorial dispute over Kashmir, which remains a major hurdle in any future comprehensive peace deal. Khar said the peace dialogue was now an "uninterruptable" process that both countries were committed to taking forward. "A new generation of Indians and Pakistanis will see a relationship that will hopefully be much different from the one that has been experienced in the last two decades," she said. A joint statement outlined the commitment of both sides to fight militancy, boost trade and keep the peace process going. Khar, Pakistan's first female foreign minister, was appointed last week and, at just 34 years of age, some had questioned whether she was experienced enough to handle one of the world's most fraught cross-border relationships. At 79, Krishna is 45 years her senior. The pre-talks atmosphere had been soured by Khar's decision to meet Kashmiri separatist leaders immediately after her arrival in New Delhi on Tuesday. A senior Indian government source said the meeting was "not a good idea at all" and served "no useful purpose." But Pakistani Foreign Secretary Salman Bashir played down the issue, saying it had done nothing to cloud the Khar-Krishna meeting. "Reading more into it is not warranted," he said. Both foreign ministers stressed the role constructive ties between New Delhi and Islamabad would play in ensuring peace in the wider South Asia region. In Washington, State Department spokesman Mark Toner praised the talks. Diplomacy between India and Pakistan is "always a positive step," Toner told reporters. "It's constructive for the region; it's constructive for both those countries." India and Pakistan are jockeying for influence in Afghanistan ahead of the planned US troop withdrawal and Washington sees stable ties between the nuclear-armed neighbours as crucial to Afghanistan's post-war viability. "It is the Afghan dynamic... that will define the regional context for Indo-Pak relations for years to come," said C. Raja Mohan, a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi. In a briefing following the talks, India Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao said both sides remained "fully aware" of their deep differences and the challenges that lay ahead. She also stressed the need for Pakistan to exact "speedy justice" on those responsible for the 2008 Mumbai attacks, which India blames on Pakistan-based militants. In the run-up to the talks, the Indian media had made much of Khar's photogenic looks, with her image adorning the front pages of most newspapers Wednesday. "Pak Puts On Its Best Face," said The Times of India, the biggest-selling English-language daily, while the mass circulation Hindi newspaper Navbharat Times said India was "sweating over model-like minister."