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India, Pakistan leaders meet

Vajpayee and Musharraf shake hands during a collective call by SAARC participants Sunday.
Vajpayee and Musharraf shake hands during a collective call by SAARC participants Sunday.

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• Timeline: Kashmir history
• In-depth: Where conflict rules

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (CNN) -- The leaders of India and Pakistan have met formally for the first time since the two nuclear powers came close to war over the disputed territory of Kashmir.

Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf huddled for about an hour on the sidelines of a South Asian summit in Islamabad. Officials familiar with what was discussed called it a detailed meeting.

In Washington, the Bush administration Monday welcomed the meeting at the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation summit.

Deputy State Department Spokesman J. Adam Ereli said the United States was "pleased" the leaders of the nuclear powers met, and noted other meetings were occurring between senior Indian and Pakistani officials.

"We warmly welcome these meetings and we hope that they will lead to further engagement and dialogue between India and Pakistan," Ereli said.

On Sunday, the two leaders shook hands in their first direct contact in more than two years -- at a banquet hosted by Musharraf for the seven leaders of the association.

Relations between the neighbors have improved in the run-up to the three-day summit, which observers say is an historic opportunity for the two rivals to make moves toward peace.

A year ago, relations between India and Pakistan were so bad the annual summit of South Asian nations was canceled.

Vajpayee arrived in Pakistan Saturday for the first time in nearly five years.

Since February 1999, the nations have almost gone to war twice over Kashmir.

But lately Vajpayee has said he wants to make a final push for peace in his lifetime, and ties have gradually warmed over the last year.

In a speech Sunday, Vajpayee said the nations must move from "mistrust to trust, from discord to concord and from tension to peace."

"Mutual suspicions and petty rivalries have continued to haunt us," he said. "History can remind us, guide us, teach us or warn us. It should not shackle us."

In November, India agreed to a Pakistani offer of a cease-fire along its borders in Kashmir.

For his part, Musharraf mentioned neither Kashmir nor the Pakistan-India dispute in a pre-dinner speech, but called for past disputes to be put to rest.

"There can be no development in the absence of peace. There can be no peace so long as political issues and disputes continue to fester," he said.

Mindful of two assassination attempts last month against Musharraf, around 10,000 police and commandos enforced a near lockdown on the deserted streets of Islamabad.

Motorcades of black armored limousines ferried leaders of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan and the Maldives to the Jinnah Convention Center, where the summit is taking place. Color guards of mounted lancers saluted them.

The summit participants are expected to endorse a long-stalled free-trade area aimed at improving the lives of one-fifth of the world's population, including hundreds of millions of its poorest people.

It is expected to yield agreements on trade, security, and fighting poverty.

But all eyes will be on what happens between the leaders of India and Pakistan, with CNN's Mike Chinoy describing the meeting between the two as a "very significant breakthrough."

While the leaders are not expected to get into detailed discussions about Kashmir, there are high hopes Musharraf and Vajpayee will establish a channel of dialogue to search for a solution in the disputed region.

-- CNN's Mike Chinoy contributed to this report

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