NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Pakistan’s Nawaz Sharif will meet this week on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, Singh said on Wednesday, amid heightened tension between the neighbors over Kashmir.
Analysts expect the meeting will address a series of fatal clashes along the Line of Control dividing the Himalayan region between India and Pakistan, events that followed a pact by the two nations to resume stalled talks to strengthen ties.
The clashes have left dead at least 8 soldiers from both countries in less than two months. The South Asia Terrorism Portal, which tracks the violence, says this year’s toll is 44 members of the security forces, up from 17 for all of last year.
“During my visit to New York, I also look forward to bilateral meetings with the leaders of some of our neighboring countries, including Bangladesh, Nepal and Pakistan,” Singh said in a statement ahead of his visit.
While the talks could soothe tension between the two nuclear powers, Singh’s scope of maneuver on concessions to Pakistan is limited, as India heads for elections that must be held by May.
Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry declined to comment on the substance of any talks, but a spokesman for Sharif said the meeting was “most likely” to take place.
Sharif says better relations with India are key to restoring a flagging economy but it is Pakistan’s military that traditionally sets foreign and security policies, even during periods of civilian rule.
India and Pakistan have fought three wars since becoming independent from Britain in 1947, two of them over Muslim-majority Kashmir. Tit-for-tat artillery exchanges regularly rattle the de facto border.
India has faced an insurgency in its part of Muslim-majority Kashmir since 1989, and has long accused Pakistan of supporting the militants fighting Indian rule.
Nevertheless, despite Pakistan’s denials that it helps the militants, fighters have for years slipped from the Pakistani side of Kashmir into the Indian side to battle Indian forces.
Many analysts expect the trend to continue as the two countries jostle for influence in Afghanistan as a NATO force prepares to withdraw by the end of 2014, with each side fearing the other wants to install a proxy government in Kabul.
Indian security officials say a new wave of Pakistan-based Islamist guerrillas are trying to cross the LoC, part of a shift in focus towards India ahead of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan [ID:nL4N0GA311].
Pakistan denies the charges.
Last month, Pakistan released 337 Indian prisoners, most of them fishermen, laying the ground for this month’s talks.
In the run-up to the meeting, New Delhi had demanded that Pakistan address its concerns over its neighbor’s aid to the Kashmir militants.
India wants Pakistan to bring to justice Hafiz Saeed, an Islamist India says masterminded a 2008 attack on its financial capital, Mumbai. Saeed roams free in Pakistan.
Indian officials also want Pakistan to publicly recognize India’s role in Afghanistan and deliver on its promise of most favored nation trading status, which would involve lifting a ban on certain Indian goods.
“When they talk, I think the main thing on the agenda would be how to prevent this kind of terrorist activity being repeated off and on, and intrusions at the border — how to avoid that,” said D.H. Pai Panandiker, president of New Delhi think-tank the RPG Foundation.
India’s opposition was quick to accuse Singh of going soft on Pakistan, saying such a meeting would lead it to believe it could get away with violence against India.
“The only reason I can think of is that in the few months that he has left in office, he perhaps wants to create history and wants to win the Nobel Peace Prize,” said Yashwant Sinha, a leader of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party.
Reporting by Anurag Kotoky; Additional reporting by Maria Golovnina in ISLAMABAD; Editing by David Chance and Clarence Fernandez