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INDIA, PAKISTAN AGREE NEW PEACE TALKS

By NBF News

NEW Delhi and Islamabad have agreed to resume formal peace talks that were broken off by New Delhi after the 2008 Mumbai attacks, with Pakistan saying discussions between the nuclear-armed rivals would start before July.

Both nations have been under pressure from the United States to resolve contentious issues, including concerns about militant violence and the disputed Kashmir region. Their rivalry spills over into Afghanistan, complicating peace efforts there.

The Reuters news agency yesterday quoted a top Indian government official as saying that the decision to return to talks was made at a meeting between the two countries' top diplomats in Bhutan's capital, Thimphu, on the margins of a regional conference.

Pakistan's foreign ministry said top officials of the two countries would hold a series of talks on outstanding issues such as counter-terrorism and Kashmir ahead of a visit to India by Pakistan's foreign minister by July.

'They have agreed to resume dialogue on all issues,' the ministry statement added.

If talks do resume there is probably little chance of rapid progress between the two countries, which have fought each other

three times since their independence more than 60 years ago. Previous formal talks, which started in 2004, quickly floundered amid a minefield of political obstacles and distrust.

Meanwhile, a 12-year-old boy in a school uniform yesterday blew himself up at a Pakistani army recruitment centre, killing 31 cadets, in an attack that challenged government assertions that it had weakened militants.

Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani condemned the attack at the Punjab Regiment Centre.

'Such cowardly attacks cannot affect the morale of the security agencies and the resolve of the nation to eradicate terrorism,' he said in a statement.

The army has carried out a series of offensives against the al Qaeda-linked Pakistani Taliban movement, which claimed responsibility for the attack.

Operations in lawless tribal areas along the Afghan border have failed to break the resolve of Taliban fighters determined to destabilise the U.S.-backed government.

The brazen bombing in the northwestern town of Mardan suggested militants are regrouping after a lull in major attacks.

In a sign of how nervous the government is about security, soldiers at the gates of the military compound searched drivers before allowing them to transport coffins inside.

Militant operations in recent months have been mostly sectarian and have not focused on military targets.

'The bomber struck recruits when cadets were busy in their morning training,' a military official said. At least 20 people were wounded.

The boy apparently walked into the compound, officials said.

'It seems the Taliban are still a very potent force because they continue to attack installations, even if they have been quiet for a time,' said former general Talat Masood.

'They reassert themselves after a while, and it will be a while before we consider them to be less of a threat.'

The Taliban have previously launched bold attacks on the military, nuclear-armed Pakistan's most powerful institution.

Last March, two suicide bombers killed at least 45 people in the city of Lahore, including nine soldiers.

In 2009, Pakistani Taliban militants disguised as soldiers attacked the army's headquarters in Rawalpindi and later took 42 people hostage in a nearby office building.

Gilani's government faces pressure on several fronts.

It is trying to revive a stagnant economy propped up by an $11 billion (6 billion pounds) International Monetary Fund loan which requires politically sensitive reforms.    Public discontent is growing over official corruption, rampant poverty and power cuts.

Washington, the source of billions of dollars in aid, is pressuring Pakistan to intensify its fight against both domestic militant groups and ones that cross the long, porous border to attack Western forces in Afghanistan.

Tensions between the allies are also running high over the case of Raymond Davis, who killed two Pakistanis in late January.

Davis, the U.S. embassy in Islamabad says, is a diplomat who acted in self-defence when he shot two men in the middle of a busy Lahore street on January 27. He thus enjoys diplomatic immunity and should be released according to international law and custom.

The Pakistanis say it is a matter for the courts to decide and have moved to charge Davis with two counts of murder. Handing him over to the Americans would deepen anti-American sentiment in Pakistan.