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War of Words at Asia Summit

Diplomacy: At gathering in Kazakhstan, Pakistan and India trade charges over attacks in Kashmir. Putin aims to get the two nuclear rivals to talk.


ALMATY, Kazakhstan — The leaders of India and Pakistan traded charges in Kazakhstan today at the opening of a regional security summit, as Russian President Vladimir V. Putin aimed to persuade the two nuclear powers to pull back from the brink of war over the disputed region of Kashmir.

By a quirk of circumstance, this city in the heart of Central Asia, a place hardly anyone has heard of, has become the stage for a meeting of high drama and global importance.

"We are concerned about conflict in South Asia," Kazakh President Nursultan A. Nazarbayev intoned in a speech opening the first meeting of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia. "We wish and call upon our neighbors to achieve a peaceful resolution of the problems."

With India and Pakistan on the verge of war, he stressed, times call for "reserve and responsibility." Putin is spearheading an international press to persuade the two nuclear powers to pull back from the brink and start a process of de-escalation and dialogue.

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, in his plenary speech, denied any guilt by Pakistan in the recent attacks in India or the Indian-controlled portion of Kashmir by Islamists seeking to wrest that part of the disputed Himalayan territory from New Delhi's control.

"Targeting of innocent people cannot be justified under any circumstances. We do and we must reject terrorism in all of its forms and manifestations," he said.

"However, there is also a need for introspection," Musharraf said. The causes of extremism must be addressed, including "eliminating injustice" in Kashmir.

The Pakistani general pledged that his nation stands ready to respond if attacked, but he ended with a plea for peace. "We need to return to the path of dialogue and negotiations," he said.

Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, speaking a little later, responded to Musharraf's speech directly. He said that Pakistan had not lived up to promises it made earlier this year to end "cross-border terrorism" and charged that "terrorist camps operate unhindered" along the border.

"Regrettably, the settlement of conflicts with the help of dialogue has been facing a strong opponent lately. Its name is terrorism, which is supported by religious extremism," he said.

"We have repeatedly said we are ready to discuss all issues, but for that, cross-border terrorism has to end," Vajpayee declared. He said states should not indulge in nuclear blackmail, repeating earlier pledges that India will not be the first to use nuclear weapons.

On the edges of the meeting, representatives of the two nations were trying to convince the world they were more level-headed and peace-loving than the other. But for other participants in the summit, it was hard to escape a stark fear that any miscalculation could bring about a catastrophe.

"Just the fact of the leaders of India and Pakistan being in the same place at this particular moment is potentially positive," said one diplomatic observer. "We do see this as a serious opportunity."

The coincidence that brought Vajpayee and Musharraf to Kazakhstan at this time was the first meeting of the new Asian security conference, called CICA for short. The organization is meant to be Asia's version of the Helsinki process, which evolved into the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Conceived by Nazarbayev in 1992, for many years it seemed a quixotic dream on his part to create a forum where all countries of the continent could exchange views on questions of mutual security on an equal footing.

Slow and patient diplomacy on Nazarbayev's part--coupled perhaps with the realization that Kazakhstan's newly tapped oil wealth near the Caspian Sea may eventually make this nation an economic power to be reckoned with--have helped make the dream a reality.

Almaty's streets have been decked out in the flags of the 16 nations participating, creating the rather incongruous sight of the flag of the Islamic Republic of Iran fluttering once removed from Israel's blue-and-white Star of David banner.

In a flower-bedecked conference room, the heads of state and government sat around a rectangular bank of tables. Musharraf was seated next to Chinese President Jiang Zemin. Neither Vajpayee nor Musharraf, seated a few feet away, made any apparent effort to greet or talk with each other.

Putin volunteered to lend his efforts to ease the crisis between India and Pakistan at Almaty, and he has scheduled separate meetings with both Musharraf and Vajpayee. Addressing the plenary meeting a few hours after arriving in Almaty from Moscow, he said the conflict between the two had caused great concern.

Putin has been riding a crest of diplomatic successes over the last two weeks, including his summit in Russia with President Bush and a meeting with the European Union during which the EU promised to recognize Russia's status as a free-market economy.

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