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India Calls for Action, Not Just Gestures

South Asia: Its prime minister acquiesces to a handshake initiated by Pakistan's leader but repeats his demand for an end to terrorism.


KATMANDU, Nepal — Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf stole the stage at a regional summit here Saturday with a surprise shake of Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's hand, but the gesture drew only stern words from Vajpayee.

"I am glad that President Musharraf extended his hand of friendship to me, and I have shaken his hand in your presence," Vajpayee told the conference of seven South Asian nations.

"Now President Musharraf must follow this gesture by not permitting any activity in Pakistan, or any territory in its control today, which enables terrorists to perpetrate mindless violence in India."

Later Saturday, the Indian prime minister failed to show up at an informal gathering of the leaders attending the South Asian Assn. of Regional Cooperation summit, the first such conference in more than three years.

Musharraf has won praise from Western governments and the United Nations for moving against alleged terrorists in Pakistan by arresting hundreds of suspected extremists, including the leaders of two groups that India blames for a Dec. 13 attack on its Parliament.

India questions, however, whether the roundup of suspects will lead to the trial and imprisonment of terrorists who it claims are secretly supported by Pakistan's military intelligence.

India's Foreign Ministry has repeatedly said it wants stronger evidence that Musharraf is dismantling terrorist groups, such as a decline in "terrorist" violence in the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir, before it will begin talks to defuse tensions with Pakistan.

The Pakistani president drew loud applause when, at the close of his speech Saturday, he announced that he wanted "to extend a hand of genuine, sincere friendship to Prime Minister Vajpayee."

When Musharraf walked in front of a row of leaders to shake Vajpayee's hand, the Indian prime minister looked at first slightly perturbed and then amused as a broad smile spread across his face. The Indian Foreign Ministry later dismissed Musharraf's gesture as a public relations ploy.

Saturday wasn't the first time that Indian officials have found themselves outmaneuvered on television by Musharraf, an army general who has proved much more adept at the media game than Vajpayee or his senior ministers.

When Vajpayee played host to Musharraf at a July summit near the Taj Mahal, in the Indian city of Agra, the Pakistani leader revealed details of the sensitive talks in a breakfast meeting with Indian editors, and a videotape of his sometimes angry remarks was telecast almost immediately.

Indian officials were incensed at what they considered a slap in the face at a crucial moment in the Agra summit, and the meeting failed to start a promised, step-by-step process to resolve the Kashmir dispute, which has plagued relations between India and Pakistan since independence in 1947.

Musharraf repeated Saturday that Pakistan is "determined to eliminate terrorism," but he then seemed to refer to a long-held position that guerrillas fighting Indian rule in Kashmir are waging a justified "freedom struggle."

"We cannot address only the symptoms and leave the malaise aside," Musharraf said. "It is equally important that a distinction is maintained between acts of legitimate resistance and freedom struggles on the one hand and acts of terrorism on the other."

India sees such remarks as a justification for what it considers terrorism. But Musharraf's defense of one form of armed struggle in Kashmir is only one reason Vajpayee doesn't trust the Pakistani leader's promises to end terrorism.

Vajpayee cited previous efforts at diplomacy with Pakistan that the prime minister said "were rewarded with aggression."

Vajpayee took a short bus ride across the border in February 1999 for a summit with Pakistan's then-prime minister, Nawaz Sharif. The leaders signed a joint declaration in which they promised to intensify efforts toward resolving the Kashmir dispute and to "refrain from intervention and interference in each other's internal affairs."

About three months later, the two countries were on the brink of a fourth war after the infiltration of guerrilla fighters and Pakistani soldiers across the cease-fire line in Kashmir set off a battle for the strategic Kargil Heights. The heavy fighting left hundreds of soldiers and civilians dead.

India has accused Musharraf of being the architect of the Kargil attack. Musharraf, who seized power in a bloodless coup in October 1999, was army chief of staff during the Kargil conflict.

In a recent television interview, Benazir Bhutto said that when she was Pakistan's prime minister, Musharraf came to her with a similar plan to seize Kargil under the guise of "a war game."

"I put my foot down," Bhutto told the interviewer. "I said that if anything like this happens, it will be a big setback for Pakistan. We will be forced to withdraw."

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