ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — After meeting with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf for nearly two hours, a senior American envoy said Thursday that he was heartened about the prospects for defusing the crisis that has brought this nation and neighboring India to the verge of war.
"President Musharraf has made it very clear he's searching for peace, that he won't be the one to initiate war, and I'll be looking hopefully for the same kind of assurances tomorrow in New Delhi," Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage told reporters here. "I think that's a very good basis on which to proceed."
A senior Pakistani official close to Musharraf also was upbeat, describing the talks as "a very positive exchange of ideas."
Armitage made his comments on the first day of a brief trip to troubled South Asia. The visit is the latest in a series of international diplomatic efforts aimed at heading off the possibility of military conflict between two nuclear-armed nations that have fought three wars during the last 55 years.
Armitage is scheduled to fly early today to New Delhi to consult with Indian leaders. On the eve of Armitage's mission, President Bush urged Musharraf and Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee in telephone calls to intensify efforts to find a peaceful way out of the crisis over the disputed Kashmir region.
In Washington, White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said Bush spoke by telephone for about 20 minutes Thursday with Russian President Vladimir V. Putin about several issues, including the India-Pakistan dispute.
Fleischer said the two agreed in their call "to continue mutual efforts to de-escalate tensions between India and Pakistan."
The United States has an important stake in reducing tensions. In addition to the enormous dangers inherent in an armed conflict between nuclear powers, a war on the subcontinent would be a serious blow to the American-led struggle against international terrorism.
U.S. forces based in Pakistan provide crucial support for the fight to crush the remnants of the Al Qaeda terrorist network, believed to have taken sanctuary on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistani border. In addition, Pakistan has pulled some troops away from the search there for Al Qaeda units and redeployed them along the eastern border with India.
Armitage's visit came on a day when fighting on the tense frontier in Kashmir reportedly claimed at least 13 lives--seven in armed attacks on the Indian side and six on the Pakistani side, apparently from Indian army artillery shelling. The British and U.S. governments issued new warnings Wednesday urging their citizens to leave the subcontinent.
Pakistani sources said Armitage presented no specific peace plan to Musharraf and other senior officials here but was instead searching for ways to coax the South Asian nations to step back from the edge of open hostilities and to agree on confidence-building measures that could reduce tensions.
It is a politically delicate task.
About 1 million Indian and Pakistani troops are massed along their border amid tensions over Kashmir, a Muslim-majority territory claimed by both nations and divided between them by the so-called Line of Control. The current crisis was triggered by attacks in the Indian-controlled portion of Kashmir that were carried out by Islamic militant groups. New Delhi claims that the attackers trained in Pakistan and then crossed over into Indian-held Kashmir.
India has refused to engage in direct talks with Pakistan to end the crisis until it is satisfied that Musharraf has halted the incursions of militants across the frontier. Pakistani officials insist that the infiltration has stopped and that recent terrorist acts in the Indian-controlled territory were carried out by groups based there.
On Thursday, Armitage appeared to accept similar assurances given by Musharraf.
"The president of Pakistan has made it very clear that nothing is happening across the Line of Control," he said. "We're looking for that to hold over the longer run."
Armitage is expected to try to use those assurances during meetings in New Delhi to nudge India toward de-escalatory measures.
Vajpayee appeared to be moving in that direction Wednesday when he proposed joint Indian-Pakistani military patrols along the Line of Control, but even that proposal quickly fizzled in both countries.
First, Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokesman Aziz Ahmed Khan dismissed the idea as unworkable in the current climate of mistrust. Then Vajpayee's defense minister, George Fernandes, said Thursday that he believed there was "no likelihood" of joint patrols.
U.S. officials said it was unclear how long Armitage will stay in New Delhi, but it appeared likely that he will depart during the weekend.
Times staff writer James Gerstenzang in Washington contributed to this report.