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India, Pakistan to Discuss Troop Move Tensions

January 25, 1987|RONE TEMPEST | Times Staff Writer

NEW DELHI — India agreed Saturday to hold talks with Pakistan to ease tensions created by recent, large-scale, strategic troop movements by both countries along their shared border, which has been a battleground arena in three previous wars.

A spokesman for the Indian government proposed that the "level, venue and timing of such talks be settled through diplomatic channels."

India responded to an earlier appeal by a Pakistani official in the capital of Islamabad for "immediate consultations with India for the de-escalation of tension that has been built up by the concentration of Indian forces on Pakistan's borders."

Tensions between the two countries had intensified in recent days after Pakistan moved at least four army divisions totaling about 60,000 troops to key positions near the Indian border at Fazilka and Sialkot.

Military Exercise

The Pakistani moves were apparently in response to Islamabad's fears about Indian troop movements in preparation for a huge military exercise in the Indian desert state of Rajasthan next month.

Western military observers and diplomats interviewed here said that so far, at least, they do not consider the new tensions between the two traditional rivals a serious threat to peace in the region. Recent relations between India and Pakistan have generally been cordial.

President Zia ul-Haq of Pakistan has even talked of visiting India to attend a series of cricket matches now under way between the Pakistani and Indian national teams.

"So far they are still playing cricket," one Western military expert said. "But on the border, the two armies are cheek by jowl. They are literally a rifle shot away. Anything could happen."

Large-Scale Maneuvers

For several months, Pakistani officials had repeated concerns about Indian plans for large-scale military maneuvers in February and March in the Great Indian Desert near Bikaner.

The Indian army exercise, dubbed Brass Tacks, is expected to involve an unprecedented nine divisions and four brigades--a total of between 150,000 and 175,000 men. A scheduled mock battle between two corps of the Indian army will equal in scale the largest maneuvers held by North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces in Europe. Brass Tacks will be by far the biggest peacetime military exercise in 40 years of Indian history.

Pakistani officials said they are worried that such a massive concentration of Indian forces poses a threat to outmanned Pakistani units in the border area.

In fact, for several weeks beginning in October, segments of Pakistan's population were gripped by fears that India, angered by what it contends is Pakistani interference in the conflict between Sikh separatists and authorities in the Indian state of Punjab, was planning an invasion of their country.

Fears Were Eased

Those fears were somewhat eased in November when Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi of India, at a regional meeting of heads of state, assured his Pakistani counterpart, Mohammed Khan Junejo, that the impending maneuvers were routine and not aggressive.

However, as divisions of the 1-million-strong Indian army, the world's fourth largest, began arriving in Brass Tacks exercise areas in the Great Indian Desert last month, Pakistani concerns were revived.

Yet instead of bolstering their forces in Bahawalpur, across the border from where the Indian exercises will take place, Pakistan ordered the 15,000-man division normally posted there to a position 150 miles northeastward, across from the city of Fazilka in the Indian Punjab.

Another three Pakistani divisions, normally posted in Gujranwala, 50 miles inside Pakistan, were ordered forward to Sialkot, a key city on the border that has figured in the three Indo-Pakistani wars of 1948, 1965 and 1971.

Border Sealed

These movements alarmed the Indians because they were near areas normally protected by units already relocated for Brass Tacks.

In response to the Pakistani moves, India sealed the Punjab border Friday, put its air force on alert and ordered new army units into border areas opposite the Pakistani divisions. Indian officials said Pakistani troops had taken offensive postures on the border.

Communications Minister Arjun Singh informed U.S. Ambassador John Gunther Dean of the Indian alert and asked the United States to use its good offices to persuade Pakistani authorities to remove their forces from border positions. Dean is believed to have encouraged the Indians to continue talking with the Pakistanis through an established hot line between the two countries.

Meanwhile, Indian External Affairs Minister Narayan Dutt Tiwari briefed Soviet Ambassador Vassily N. Rykov on Indian moves.

So far, according to Western military observers in the Indian capital, the situation between the traditional archrivals does not appear too ominous.

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