Taking a significant step to end one of the world's most dangerous conflicts, nuclear-armed rivals India and Pakistan agreed to a cease-fire Tuesday aimed at halting 14 years of cross-border gun battles in the disputed Kashmir region.
The cease-fire's prospects for success remained uncertain because the militants who often launch deadly raids from Pakistan into Indian-held territory are not covered by the agreement. One analyst described the accord, which restricts the countries' conventional armies from attacking each other, as more "symbolic than substantive."
Under pressure from the U.S. and Europe, New Delhi and Islamabad have been taking cautious steps toward normalizing relations. Analysts said the cease-fire could buy the neighbors time to strike a comprehensive deal on sharing Kashmir.
The countries last year came to the brink of a fourth war after India blamed Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency for a December 2001 assault on India's Parliament building that left 14 people dead, including the five militants who launched the attack.
The cease-fire involves a tinderbox in Indian-Pakistani relations: the Line of Control that divides Kashmir, drawn after the countries' 1971 war. In the last 14 years, fighting between their armies -- and India's battle with militants -- has killed more than 65,000 people, most of them civilians. The militants seek independence for the Indian-controlled portion of Kashmir or its merger with Pakistan.
A yearlong lull in clashes along the Line of Control ended in July 2001, just as Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf were about to begin a summit in Agra, near India's famed Taj Mahal.
The cease-fire is significant because it is the first time in several years that the rivals have not dismissed an offer made by the other, said Husain Haqqani, a leading Pakistani journalist and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.
But India and Pakistan are still much further from a breakthrough on Kashmir than they were in 1998, Haqqani said. In that year, Vajpayee and Pakistan's then-prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, agreed to hold comprehensive peace talks at a summit in Lahore, Pakistan, which took place early the next year.
Haqqani said Pakistan feels increasingly threatened by India's growing influence in Central Asia since the ouster of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Political considerations in India and Pakistan also make significant movement toward lasting peace difficult, he said, because India's Hindu nationalist government is to call national elections next year, and the country's claim to the mainly Muslim Kashmir is a rallying point for the government's supporters. Musharraf also uses the dispute to build his support.
"I don't think there will be any serious concessions from India, so the question is how far can Gen. Musharraf go in making concessions to India without, at some point, having domestic repercussions in Pakistan," Haqqani said.
On Tuesday, India's Foreign Ministry announced that the cease-fire was finalized during a weekly meeting between senior Pakistani and Indian military officers. A ministry statement said the agreement applies to the 450-mile-long Line of Control, as well as the international border between India and Pakistan and the Siachen Glacier.
Two days earlier, Pakistani Prime Minister Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali offered the cease-fire to commemorate Eid al-Fitr, the Muslim festival marking the end of prayer and fasting during the holy month of Ramadan.
India's Foreign Ministry insisted that for the cease-fire to be successful, Pakistan needed to prevent militants from crossing into Indian-held territory and launching attacks on troops and civilians. The Indian military warned that it would open fire to prevent militants from staging such attacks.
Despite Musharraf's repeated assurances about stopping the militants, Indian army commanders say the fighters routinely cross with the support of Pakistan's military, which the Indians accuse of launching artillery fire to divert attention while the militants slip across the heavily fortified frontier.
Heavy snow usually closes the main infiltration routes through the Himalayas in mid-December, a fact that could allow several months for a cease-fire to take hold and for India and Pakistan to move closer to formal peace talks.
Pakistan's government recently announced a ban on six extremist groups linked to what most Pakistanis see as a legitimate freedom struggle in Kashmir. But it was the third time in two years that Pakistan had announced a crackdown on militants. India's government said it was waiting to see proof that Pakistan was serious.
Musharraf assured U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage in early May that he would put an end to the cross-border attacks. Barely a month later, militants were moving closer to the Line of Control from training camps in Pakistani-controlled Kashmir, according to an investigative report published in July by the Herald, Pakistan's leading English-language newsmagazine.
It quoted militants in Pakistani-held Kashmir as saying intelligence agents told them to camp in small groups to avoid detection by U.S. satellites.
The magazine called "the Kashmir jihad [holy war] the goose that lays the golden egg," especially for the Pakistani military's powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency, militant commanders and leaders in Pakistani Kashmir. They are cashing in on domestic and foreign donations for the struggle there, the report said.
This week, a moderate faction in a loose alliance of Kashmiri separatists agreed to hold the first direct talks with India, which controls roughly two-thirds of the territory that has been in dispute since 1947.
The Kashmiri delegation's proposed settlement would share the territory of Jammu and Kashmir between India and Pakistan, with the Hindu-dominated Jammu and the mainly Buddhist region of Ladakh remaining under Indian control, according to a local newspaper report.
The countries would jointly control the Kashmir valley and most of Kashmir now held by Pakistan, which would be responsible for the territory's defense, said the Hindustan Times.
India's hard-line deputy prime minister, Lal Krishna Advani, will head the government delegation at the talks, which are expected to begin next month.
Vajpayee has accepted Pakistan's invitation to a summit of South Asian leaders in Islamabad in January but has ruled out a bilateral meeting with Musharraf, insisting militants must first stop their infiltrations.
Times wire services contributed to this report.