updated 6/20/2004 4:43:45 AM ET 2004-06-20T08:43:45

India and Pakistan announced Sunday they would establish a new hotline between their foreign ministries to alert each other of potential nuclear accidents or threats, a major step forward in efforts to normalize relations between the longtime South Asian rivals.

In a joint statement at the conclusion of two days of talks in the Indian capital, officials said the dedicated secure hotline was intended to "prevent misunderstandings and reduce risks relevant to nuclear issues."

The joint statement said an existing hotline between directors general of military operations in both countries also would be upgraded and secured.

Experts from both sides, which have gone to war three times since independence from Britain in 1947, also reaffirmed their moratorium on conducting further nuclear tests, "unless, in exercise of national sovereignty, it decides that extraordinary events have jeopardized its supreme interests."

Ongoing dialogue
India and Pakistan carried out nuclear tests in May 1998, provoking military and economic sanctions by the United States and its allies. International fears of a nuclear confrontation were exacerbated when the two countries fought in the Himalayas in 1999, and came close to war again in mid-2002 when India blamed Pakistan for a terrorist attack on its Parliament compound.

The talks are only the first stage in the nuclear dialogue.

A meeting on Saturday was led by top foreign ministry officials, Sheel Kant Sharma from India and Tariq Usman Haider of Pakistan.

The joint statement also said India and Pakistan would work toward concluding an agreement with "technical parameters on pre-notification of flight testing of missiles, a draft of which was handed over by the Indian side."

Currently, the two countries have conflicting nuclear policies.

India -- which enjoys a substantial advantage in conventional weapons over Pakistan -- says it would not be the first to use nuclear weapons. Pakistan has not committed to a no-first-strike doctrine.

In February 1999, Vajpayee visited the eastern Pakistani city of Lahore, where the two sides signed a preliminary agreement to pursue a reduction of nuclear risks through a series of confidence-building steps. These included advance notification of missile tests, an agreement both sides have adhered to.

But plans to hold further nuclear talks were thwarted as relations deteriorated after an attack on the Indian Parliament in December 2001, which New Delhi blamed on Pakistan's spy agency and Pakistan-based militant groups. Both the agency and the militant groups denied the charge.

The joint statement said both countries would continue bilaterial talks toward implementation of the 1999 Lahor agreement.

India's new Congress-led government is pursuing peace initiatives started by the previous government of former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, ousted from power in April-May national elections.

The next round of talks will be held between the foreign secretaries on June 27-28, in which they'll take up the thorny issue of Kashmir, the disputed Himalayan province that has been the flashpoint of two wars between India and Pakistan.

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