India, Pakistan release prisoners ahead of top talks

India-Pakistan peace talks appear to be picking up, as both countries made 'goodwill gestures' of releasing prisoners ahead of a meeting between home ministers.

Yasir Iqbal/Reuters
A released Indian prisoner carrying his belongings walks after crossing the India-Pakistan joint check-post at the Wagah border June 23. Pakistan released 17 Indian prisoners on Wednesday ahead of talks between India and Pakistan's top civil servants in their foreign ministries.

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India and Pakistan each announced they would release prisoners as goodwill gestures ahead of a weekend meeting between national security ministers, a hopeful step toward improving relations between the acrimonious neighbors.

The meeting in Islamabad between Indian Home Minister P. Chidambaram and his Pakistani counterpart, Interior Minister Rehman Malik, will come on the sidelines of the third South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) interior ministers’ conference. Both leaders are in charge of national security.

Mr. Chidambaram is expected to press for more action from Pakistan against the perpetrators of the 2008 Mumbai attacks, Agence France-Presse reports. India says that Pakistan has not done enough to punish and root out the masterminds of the attack, while Pakistan says it has done all it can.

The Mumbai attacks derailed a peace process begun in 2004, as Pakistan-based militants killed more than 160 people. Formal peace talks restarted only in February in New Delhi, despite popular opposition in India. There had been no major terrorist attacks in India after Mumbai until a bakery in Pune, a few hours from Mumbai, was bombed days before their meeting in February.

India said Friday it will release four Pakistani prisoners at the end of June. Pakistan released 17 Indian prisoners earlier this week before the countries' foreign secretaries met on Thursday in Islamabad, the Pakistan daily Dawn reported, adding that hundreds of prisoners "languish" on each side of the border on charges of spying or entering illegally.

The meeting between foreign secretaries had a "positive outcome," the Indian Express reported, though it added that sources said that India brought up the rise in the number of militants crossing the Line of Control in Kashmir that forms the de facto border with Pakistan and an increase in ceasefire violations in the talks.

Reuters reports that the meetings in Islamabad will be crucial in determining the tone of a meeting between foreign ministers on July 15.

"The input from the meeting will help the Indian foreign minister to make up his mind whether to start the dialogue or to keep on dragging," analyst Hasan Askari Rizvi told Reuters.

"I think this is a very crucial meeting because India would also be testing out, making their own assessment of what Pakistan's response is going to be," Pakistan's former interior secretary Tasneem Noorani told Reuters. "The interior ministers' meeting will really set the pace for the meeting between their foreign ministers next month," he said.

In an optimistic editorial, Pakistan's Daily Times applauds India's softening stance, even though not much progress has been made on its demands:

There has been no change in the status quo regarding the terrorist infrastructure India complains of. Apparently, the diminishing returns of its rigid stance have compelled India to change its position vis-à-vis Pakistan. Internationally, India began to be seen as simply obdurate rather than statesmanlike, when Pakistan had given no indication of not wanting to engage in dialogue. ... Also, not engaging with Pakistan means ceding ground to the terrorists, whose ultimate aim is to damage efforts at normalisation of relations between the two countries.

Blogging for the MacArthur Foundation Asia Security Initiative, Animesh Roul, executive director of research at the Society for the Study of Peace and Conflict in New Delhi, also said the scene was brightening:

The mood is definitely positive. But the bigger questions here are: whether Pakistan will take the advantage of India’s substantive behavioral change and ‘not rigid anymore’ attitude to boost trust by working resolutely against the Kashmir centric Islamic terrorists? Whether India and Pakistan take advantage of this opportunity to exchange information about criminal and terror elements and bridge the existing mistrust? How far Pakistan can prevent another Mumbai type jihadist plot in India or abroad against its infrastructures or interests (read Afghanistan) which will ultimately sabotage the new found Indo-Pak bonhomie?


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