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S. Asian Conflict Shadows Summit

Nepal: Regional leaders gather for meeting that begins today as India continues to demand that Pakistan turn over terrorist suspects.

January 04, 2002|PAUL WATSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

KATMANDU, Nepal — As regional leaders gathered here to talk about getting along better, India kept the heat on rival Pakistan by insisting again that Islamabad hand over at least 20 alleged terrorists and criminals for trial.

The two nuclear powers continued to mass forces along their border Thursday in a crisis that flared when militants attacked India's Parliament on Dec. 13, and Indian Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh offered little hope of a diplomatic breakthrough during a summit of South Asian leaders here.

By repeating that Pakistan must extradite the men before India puts any evidence in front of a judge, Singh stirred the embers of a conflict that threatens to erupt into all-out war.

"They include proven terrorists, proven criminals, narcotics dealers," Singh told reporters in Katmandu, the Nepalese capital. "The entire repertoire of crimes against humanity that you can think of is what these 20 have done.

"Why should they find shelter in Pakistan? And why should Pakistan be interested in providing them shelter? I'm simply unable to understand."

Although the two neighbors don't have an extradition treaty, Pakistani Foreign Minister Abdus Sattar has left open the possibility of turning over suspects for trial if an Indian court rules that there is sufficient evidence against them.

But Singh insisted Thursday that New Delhi already has provided enough proof to Pakistani authorities over the past eight years and that the demand from Islamabad for more is "completely unacceptable."

Singh said he understands that it "will take a little time" for Pakistan to deal with a terrorism problem that has been 20 years in the making. But his charge that Pakistan is sheltering people guilty of crimes against humanity was hardly the more conciliatory tone that Washington has been pressing for in its diplomatic effort to avert a war.

"India is not interested in escalating anything," Singh said. "It is our hope that Pakistan will work seriously toward what they themselves have announced, that it is their intent to act against terrorism. That must be in deeds and not simply in words."

Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf says he is willing to meet with Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee during the weekend summit of seven regional leaders from the South Asian Assn. for Regional Cooperation. It begins today.

But Indian officials have said repeatedly that neither Musharraf and Vajpayee nor their foreign ministers are likely to hold peace talks during the Nepal summit.

"I'm not here to conduct India-Pakistan relations," Singh said.

In an interview with Nepal's national news service, Musharraf called the exclusion of bilateral issues from the regional cooperation summit "a serious handicap which has crippled the association."

Before leaving for Nepal on Thursday afternoon, Vajpayee sounded a more moderate tone than in recent days. "War is not a must," he said. "Efforts are being made to avoid war through diplomatic channels. If that succeeds, there will be no need to opt for other alternatives."

But Vajpayee's rhetoric has swung from belligerent to conciliatory and back again several times since five gunmen attacked the Parliament buildings last month, killing themselves and nine other people. India has blamed the attack on Kashmiri separatists based in Pakistan.

On Wednesday, Vajpayee warned that India will "use every weapon in self-defense, and if the enemy suffers in the bargain, we shall not be responsible for it." It was a not-so-subtle reference to India's nuclear arsenal, which it has pledged not to use first. Pakistan has yet to state a "no first use" nuclear policy.

Musharraf has won praise in Washington for ordering the arrest of dozens of extremists, including the leaders of the two groups India has accused of carrying out the Dec. 13 attack.

India complains that the arrests are largely a public relations ploy because the leaders of Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Taiba were arrested for allegedly making inflammatory speeches, not for carrying out acts of terrorism.

The "wanted list" of 20 names that India's government first handed to Pakistan on Monday includes Jaish leader Maulana Masood Azhar and six people suspected of involvement in a series of 1993 bomb attacks in Bombay.

On March 12, 1993, terrorist bombs killed 257 people in Bombay, India's financial and entertainment capital. Eleven days after the attack, India formally asked Pakistan to arrest six suspects who New Delhi said had escaped to the Pakistani port city of Karachi.

On March 30, 1993, India sent 18 pages of information on the suspects to the Pakistani government, including evidence of their role in the terrorist attacks, Singh said.

In June 1994, India officially requested the extradition or deportation from Pakistan of 24 Indian citizens accused of carrying out the Bombay blasts, but New Delhi is still waiting to bring them to justice.

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