India and Pakistan cut risk of warIndia and Pakistan agreed last night to set up a hotline to avoid a nuclear confrontation and to continue the ban on nuclear tests.
Their diplomats met in New Delhi in what both sides said were moves to "prevent misunderstandings".
The neighbours, which held nuclear tests weeks apart in 1998 and have come close to war twice since, said they now wanted to "promote a stable environment of peace and security".
They reaffirmed their moratorium on nuclear tests. There was, however, a caveat: tests would resume if either side, in the interests of national sovereignty, decided that "extraordinary events" had "jeopardized its supreme interests".
Both sides said they were advancing "step by step". "Whatever we agree to do, we must implement. That is the spirit," said Pakistan's foreign ministry spokesman, Masood Khan.
Pakistan said it hoped that the nuclear talks and other tracks of dialogue would eventually lead to a summit between Pakistan's president, General Pervez Musharraf, and India's new prime minister, Manmohan Singh.
"We are making preparations ... If they culminate in a summit, it will be a good thing," Mr Khan said.
The extent of the rapprochement is remarkable given that the threat of nuclear war became real in the summer of 2002, whenboth sides had readied their nuclear arsenals.
At that point a million troops had eyeballed each other across the line of control, the de facto border dividing the disputed Himalayan state of Kashmir.
Telephone diplomacy by Washington, Beijing and London helped to ease the crisis.
India enjoys a substantial advantage in conventional weapons over Pakistan and says it would not be the first to use nuclear weapons.
Pakistan has not made that commitment.
The phone link between the top civil servants in their foreign ministries is, in effect, an upgrade of the hotline between the directors general of military operations in both countries. More substantive was seen to be the announcement that both sides had agreed to work on formalising arrangements to notify each other before missile tests and the nuclear test ban.
Analysts welcomed the outcome. "The talks show that India and Pakistan are well set on the path of nuclear stability," a defence analyst, Jasjit Singh, told Reuters.
"They recognise that they have to work on nuclear stability and risk reduction for their own sake and not merely to get a certificate from someone else." Others, however, said that the progress made could have been greater.
"I think they could have gone much further than this," said Praful Bidwai, a writer and member of the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace. "They could have agreed moratoriums for tests without conditions and for non-deployment of nuclear weapons for a number of years. That would have been a much bigger step towards peace."
The talks have set the scene for the first meeting of the two countries' foreign ministers. Despite tense earlier exchanges between the pair, India's Natwar Singh and Pakistan's Khursheed Mehmood Kasuri have come to forge a working partnership in public.
The two are due to meet in China today on the sidelines of a regional conference. The next round of face to face talks between the neighbours will take place next week in New Delhi, where Kashmir will no doubt hog the agenda.