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South Asia's Mood Seems Less Warlike

Face-off: As Pakistan takes 20 militants into custody, India expresses satisfaction. But New Delhi is likely to want more such moves.


ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — After days of saber-rattling and a buildup of Indian and Pakistani forces in Kashmir, tensions in the disputed Himalayan territory appeared to slightly ease Monday with Pakistan's arrest of 20 anti-India militants and its promise to continue the crackdown.

The key figure in custody was Hafiz Mohammed Saeed, whom India has accused of involvement in a Dec. 13 suicide attack on its Parliament in New Delhi. He was arrested Sunday at a meeting in Islamabad and charged with inciting people to violence.

Until last week, Saeed led Lashkar-e-Taiba, one of two major guerrilla groups fighting India in Kashmir. The other group's leader, Maulana Masood Azhar of Jaish-e-Mohammed, was arrested last week. Pakistan has frozen the bank accounts of both organizations. Saeed and Azhar have denied any involvement in the attack that killed 14 people, including the five gunmen.

India welcomed the latest development, saying it was "a step in the right direction." But it probably did not go far enough to completely satisfy New Delhi, which wants accused terrorists extradited and guerrilla training camps in Kashmir shut down. New Delhi is said to have a list of other suspects it wants arrested.

Shooting Continues in Contested Region

Although Western diplomats said the arrests and India's positive response could be the start of a diplomatic breakthrough, firing continued Monday across the so-called Line of Control that divides Kashmir. Two Indian soldiers, two Pakistani soldiers and nine pro-Pakistani militants were reported killed.

The two nuclear-armed nations have hundreds of thousands of troops in Kashmir, the battlefield for two wars between India and Pakistan since the end of British rule in 1947. Both sides have said they will not resort to the use of nuclear weapons, but Pakistani Foreign Minister Abdus Sattar has said the situation is so tense that he fears some unintended move by one side or the other could lead the crisis to spin out of control.

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf made a direct appeal to the Indian people Sunday, saying Pakistan does not want war but would not shy away from meeting military challenges. He earlier said that if India proved Pakistani involvement in the Dec. 13 attack, he would take action against those responsible.

"We are making every effort to avoid war," Aziz Khan, the Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokesman, told the BBC on Monday. "We don't want war. We hope good sense will prevail--and that the problems will be settled through dialogue."

The United States is exerting intense diplomatic pressure on both sides to avoid bloodshed on the subcontinent, in part because Pakistan and India are important allies in the war on terrorism. Musharraf and India's prime minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, are scheduled to attend an Asian summit in Nepal later this week, and Washington hopes the two sides will use the occasion to open a dialogue, at least on a ministerial level.

Attack Gave It Right to Respond, India Says

India contends that it has a right to respond to the attack on its Parliament, just as the United States did to the Sept. 11 attacks in New York and on the Pentagon. In reply to Washington's call for calm, Vajpayee said, "We have exercised enough restraint." The United States last week added Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed to its list of international terrorist organizations.

Pakistan, which previously supported Afghanistan's Taliban regime, switched policy after Sept. 11 and joined the coalition against terrorism, providing the United States with intelligence and military facilities. Government officials said Monday that the arrests of Saeed and his supporters were part of Pakistan's ongoing efforts against terrorism rather than a direct response to India's demands to bring the Parliament attackers to justice.

President Bush called Vajpayee and Musharraf on Saturday, and the White House suggested that he had taken a firm approach with the Pakistani leader while telling the Indian that the United States empathized with his country after the attack.

"In my conversation with the prime minister, I said I can understand how he feels. If someone attacked the U.S. Capitol, I'd feel angry too," Bush told reporters Monday at his ranch in Crawford, Texas.

However, he said he also told Vajpayee that while he understood the Indians' anger, "I was hoping that they were not headed for war."

The president specifically mentioned the arrests Monday, on top of previous arrests of guerrilla figures, and said of Musharraf, "He's cracking down hard, and I appreciate his efforts.

"Terror is terror," Bush said, "and the fact that the Pakistani president is after terrorism is a good sign."


Times staff writer James Gerstenzang in Crawford, Texas, contributed to this report.

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