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India, Pakistan Still Poised to Fight

South Asia: Musharraf says both sides have yet to step back from the brink of war. Visiting Blair works to defuse tensions over Kashmir.

January 08, 2002|DAVID LAMB | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — President Pervez Musharraf said Monday that India and Pakistan had not yet stepped back from the brink of war in Kashmir but that recent events made it more likely that the two nuclear-armed nations could begin reducing border tensions.

At a weekend Asian summit in Nepal, Musharraf shook hands and exchanged a few words with Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee. British Prime Minister Tony Blair also is visiting India and Pakistan to try to defuse tensions, and he said Monday that "there is a way through this" if the two sides start talking.

Although Musharraf's comments, at a news conference with Blair, did not suggest a breakthrough was near in Kashmir--where thousands of troops are facing one another and at least 10 people died Sunday and Monday in cross-border shelling--Western envoys noted that the Pakistani president avoided bellicose language and reiterated that he would continue cracking down on terrorists.

Blair lauded Musharraf's role as a key member of the U.S.-led coalition against terrorism. However, he equated two attacks on India by Kashmiri militants with the terrorist attacks against the United States on Sept. 11. Terrorism is terrorism, he said, regardless of where it occurs or who its victims are.

"We've welcomed some of the actions that have been taken by Pakistan over the past few days," Blair said in New Delhi on Sunday, "but there is no doubt what needs to happen [in Pakistan]. There must be a complete rejection of the types of terrorist actions carried out on Oct. 1 and Dec. 13."

Five guerrillas launched a suicide attack on India's Parliament in New Delhi on Dec. 13. Fourteen people, including the attackers, died. India responded by building up its forces in Jammu and Kashmir, its only Muslim-dominated state, and issuing a list of demands it expected Pakistan to meet if the crisis was to be resolved.

On Oct. 1, militants had assaulted the state legislature in Jammu and Kashmir, killing dozens of people.

Musharraf, Western diplomats said, has gone a long way toward meeting India's demands but has stopped short of denouncing anti-Indian Kashmiri groups, which Pakistan has long supported.

He has arrested the leaders of two groups India says were responsible for the attack on Parliament, as well as about 300 of their supporters. He has closed their offices, frozen their financial assets and, he said Monday, will "analyze" the list of 20 Kashmiri militants India accuses of terrorism.

Both India and Pakistan have said they do not want war, and both have said they will not use nuclear weapons. But the attack on its Parliament outraged India, and it apparently views the United States' focus on the region and terrorism as an opportunity to end such attacks emanating from Kashmir.

What appears to be blocking attempts to find a diplomatic solution is the issue of whether the militants in Kashmir are freedom fighters or terrorists.

"What is happening in Kashmir is a freedom struggle," said retired Pakistani Gen. Syed Refaqat. "Virtually every Pakistani believes that. Unfortunately, given our shared history, relations with India are never going to be very stable, and that makes this crisis a diplomatic test for everyone."

President Bush said Monday that it was "very important" for Musharraf to make a clear statement that he will crack down on terrorism. If he does, Bush told reporters at the White House, "it'll provide relief . . . on a situation that's still serious."

Bush said the United States is trying to persuade India and Pakistan that there are alternatives to war.

He spoke to the leaders of both countries by telephone Dec. 29. In his conversation with Musharraf, Bush urged him to accelerate efforts to crack down on Pakistani political extremists.

"This war scenario is not something Pakistan wants or needs," said Ayesha Haroon, an editor of the Nation, an independent national newspaper in Pakistan. "But frankly, I don't think there is a chance there will be war. With Blair here, with talk of a U.S. envoy coming, there's great international pressure, and that will be helpful in avoiding war."

Although Musharraf denounced "terrorism in all its forms" Monday, he may have to move cautiously on Kashmir. He alienated religious parties by ending Pakistan's support for the Taliban in Afghanistan and by cracking down on Islamic extremists, and he stands to anger his military if he significantly changes policy on Kashmir.

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Times staff writer James Gerstenzang in Washington contributed to this report.

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