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THE WORLD

India Refuses to Talk Peace

Kashmir: Leaders head for regional summit with no plans to meet despite war footing. Pakistan's Musharraf hopes Russia can bring sides together.

June 03, 2002|PAUL WATSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW DELHI — Amid fresh shelling along the India-Pakistan border and a steady exodus of foreigners fearing a war, leaders of the two countries departed for a regional security summit Sunday with little chance that they would meet to talk peace.

Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee told reporters that "there is no such plan" for him to meet Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf at a summit of Central Asian leaders in Almaty, Kazakhstan, that begins today.

Russian President Vladimir V. Putin plans to meet separately with Vajpayee and Musharraf at the summit of 16 nations and hopes to persuade them to talk. On a stopover in Tajikistan en route to the summit Sunday, Musharraf expressed optimism that Russia, a traditional ally of India, could help.

"I think that President Putin can persuade India to join a dialogue," Musharraf told reporters.

Vajpayee, however, insists that the two sides have nothing to talk about until Musharraf stops what India calls "cross-border terrorism" in Kashmir. New Delhi says that the Pakistani military supports guerrillas who cross into Indian-controlled areas of the disputed Himalayan territory.

Musharraf says he already has cracked down on militants, but the United States and other Western governments are demanding more action to ease tensions between the nuclear-armed rivals.

Less than a year ago, the two leaders were smiling together at the marble symbol of eternal love, the Taj Mahal. That meeting, however, ended in disappointment, and now they are glaring at each other against the imagined backdrop of a mushroom cloud.

Vajpayee, a Hindu poet, and Musharraf, a Muslim paratrooper, never had much chance of bonding at their three-day summit in the Indian city of Agra last July. But at least they were talking for the first time since 1999, when Musharraf, as head of the Pakistani army, directed an incursion into Kargil, in Indian-held territory, that brought the region to the brink of war.

The heavy fighting left hundreds of soldiers and civilians dead. At the time, Pakistan said the attack was carried out by guerrilla fighters, not regular army troops. Kargil created bad feelings between Vajpayee and Musharraf, who later seized power in a bloodless coup.

Nevertheless, Vajpayee defied hard-liners in his government and agreed to Musharraf's request for talks at Agra without a set agenda. Bureaucrats and diplomats normally use pre-negotiated limits on what can be discussed as virtual leashes on leaders when they sit down to deal with disputes as entrenched as Kashmir.

Musharraf, who was born in New Delhi but fled in 1947 to newly created Pakistan with his family, visited his ancestral home before the Agra summit. The open welcome he received raised hopes of a breakthrough.

Officials at the Agra talks reported that they were going well, without giving specifics. Rumors started that a landmark deal might be in the works.

As the final day of talks was set to start, Musharraf spoke to Indian news editors at a breakfast session. His remarks were supposed to be off the record, but an Indian satellite news network aired a videotape. It showed Musharraf saying Pakistanis didn't trust India's government and thought that it was stonewalling in the hope that the Kashmir dispute would go away.

With every tough line Musharraf delivered, the prospects of any deal with Vajpayee disintegrated. Indian pundits quickly attacked Vajpayee and his closest lieutenants for letting Musharraf win the media battle, by making the Indian delegation seem aloof and unwilling to compromise.

Vajpayee's sense of being burned at Agra by Musharraf, and the Pakistani leader's more media-savvy handlers, are crucial to why the Indian leader, and some of his key Cabinet members, are very reluctant to trust Musharraf now, regardless of the risks.

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld will visit the region this week and hopes to get Vajpayee and Musharraf to start talking peace again. But he will have to find a way to crack the wall of distrust cemented at Agra.

As tensions rise again, the U.S., Britain, Canada, Israel and the United Nations have all asked nonessential embassy staff and their families to leave India and Pakistan. There has not been a panicked rush out, but many are making departure plans.

Several mid-ranking U.S. Embassy employees in New Delhi have booked flights.

Travel agents in New Delhi say they have been inundated with calls from foreigners as well as locals scrambling to get reservations, which were already hard to come by after airlines reduced their schedules in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the U.S.

Meanwhile, local newspapers and magazines are full of doomsday scenarios.

The cover of the current issue of India Today, the country's leading newsmagazine, features a photo montage of terrified people fleeing a nuclear mushroom cloud rising behind the India Gate arch, a New Delhi landmark.

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