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Pakistan Calls for International Mediation in Kashmir Conflict

February 06, 2002|GEOFFREY MOHAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MUZAFFARABAD, Pakistan — Rejecting the military brinkmanship that has lately marked relations with India, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf on Tuesday appealed to the international community, "particularly certain influential countries," to help resolve the crisis over the disputed Kashmir region.

Musharraf criticized what he called India's "cynical response" to his recent overtures to open face-to-face negotiations on the border conflict with Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee. But the president also pledged to make "no more concessions" on the issue during a speech before local legislators in the Pakistan-controlled part of Kashmir.

The two nuclear-armed countries have been amassing troops on their border since December, throwing regional stability into question at a time when the U.S. is counting on Pakistan as a close ally in its war on terrorism in neighboring Afghanistan.

"Instead of engaging in brinkmanship, Prime Minister Vajpayee should accept my invitation for dialogue for the peaceful resolution of the Kashmir dispute as well as all other issues," Musharraf said in the speech, which marked Kashmir Solidarity Day, a national holiday.

"I also take this opportunity to call upon the government of India to take steps to end repression in Kashmir," he said. "I know the Indian leadership had said once that if we take one step, they will take two steps. We have taken steps. We still await steps taken by the Indians."

Reaction from New Delhi was swift and negative. Indian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Nirupama Rao accused Musharraf of resorting to "time-worn and untenable positions" and qualified his comments as "interference in the internal affairs of India."

Peace overtures aside, Musharraf's speech was peppered with militantly patriotic terms typical of the bitter holiday marking the conflict that arose when the British partitioned the subcontinent into the secular republic of India and the Muslim nation of Pakistan. The Hindu ruler of predominantly Muslim Kashmir opted to join India, sparking a confrontation that has launched two wars and left tens of thousands of casualties.

Musharraf's mention of "certain influential countries" to help mediate a solution was taken by observers as an allusion to the United States--and as a reminder of Pakistan's cooperative stance in the U.S.-led war against terrorist groups. The Bush administration has rejected any role as mediator in the Kashmir dispute.

Last month, in a landmark national speech, Musharraf announced a ban on five Islamic extremist groups, some of which are listed as terror organizations by the Bush administration.

But a state legislator reminded Musharraf that one nation's terror group may be another's freedom fighters, a refrain that is beginning to resonate internationally as the U.S. expands its anti-terror effort to the Philippines and elsewhere.

"India has tried to link up the indigenous struggle in Kashmir . . . with Al Qaeda and the Taliban, but the fact is, there is a state of terror on the part of the government of India against the innocent and unarmed people of Kashmir," Sultan Mahmood Choudhry, a local opposition leader, told the president before his speech.

India sees itself locked in a battle against Pakistan-backed terrorism over the disputed land. It has blamed Islamic militants based in Pakistan for a bloody Dec. 13 attack on the Parliament building in New Delhi.

Musharraf defended himself against recent domestic criticism that his call for a "moderate, democratic and progressive Islamic welfare state" was little more than a recognition that he needed to choose sides in the U.S. war on terrorism.

"Let me make it clear that I did not resort to these measures under any kind of pressure or to appease anybody, and I mean every word of this," Musharraf said, returning to the theme repeatedly.

The half-hour speech, given in English rather than Urdu, the official national language, was aimed at an international audience. But Musharraf shifted to Urdu for several minutes at the end, saying his presidency, which he wrested in a bloodless coup in 1999, was "bestowed on me by God almighty."

The holiday was marked by a moment of silence, parades, protests and television footage of Pakistani victims of the Kashmir conflict. On the streets of Muzaffarabad, a banner read: "The Fragrance of Freedom Cannot be Captivated by Barbed Wires." It was strung near a model of a missile pointed toward India.

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