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India Will Reopen Airspace to Pakistani Commercial Flights

Asia: Other sanctions remain, but New Delhi says it will consider additional conciliatory gestures as tensions over Kashmir ease.

June 11, 2002|PAUL WATSON and TYLER MARSHALL | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

NEW DELHI — In a cautious gesture to Pakistan, India's government announced Monday that it will reopen its airspace to Pakistani commercial flights, but it left several other significant sanctions in place.

India will consider more conciliatory steps as it continues to assess whether Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf is keeping his promise to permanently end the infiltration of separatist fighters into India's Jammu and Kashmir state.

For now, Indian airports remain closed to Pakistan International Airlines flights, diplomatic sanctions are still in place, and several hundred thousand Indian soldiers continue to be on full alert along the border.

Pakistan welcomed India's announcement to reopen its airspace as a positive move.

"This is a step in the desired direction, but a lot more needs to be done," Foreign Ministry spokesman Aziz Ahmed Khan told the national news agency, Associated Press of Pakistan.

India is expected to take more steps after U.S. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld pays a visit due to start today.

New Delhi is set to name a new ambassador, or "high commissioner," to Pakistan's capital, Islamabad, and is returning some of its navy to port, according to British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw. He told Parliament in London on Monday that his Indian counterpart, Jaswant Singh, had informed him of the moves by phone.

India had moved five navy ships, which are believed to be capable of firing nuclear weapons, off Pakistan's Arabian Sea coast after gunmen killed 34 people, most of them the wives and children of Indian army soldiers, on May 14. Musharraf condemned the attack as terrorism and denied that Pakistan was involved.

But India is skeptical of the official denials.

Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Nirupama Rao said Monday that her government is still monitoring the situation to see whether Musharraf is keeping a promise to permanently end what India calls "cross-border terrorism."

"There is some fall in infiltration, but difficult to say if it is a definite trend," Rao told reporters.

The only sanction officially lifted Monday was the ban on commercial Pakistani aircraft flying through Indian airspace, which New Delhi imposed Jan. 1 in retaliation for what it called Pakistan's support for a Dec. 13 terrorist attack on India's Parliament.

Fourteen people, including the five gunmen, died in the assault, which brought the two nuclear-armed neighbors to the brink of their fourth war. They have teetered back and forth now for several months. A terrorist attack pushes them closer to war, and a diplomatic mission pulls them back again.

Although tensions are easing, the countries are still only a major terrorist strike, or a military miscalculation, away from all-out war between a combined nearly 1 million troops that are mobilized on their border.

Earlier Monday, Musharraf cautioned against overestimating the impact of recent diplomatic activity that has brought a perceptible easing of tensions between the two countries.

"As long as the forces remain deployed and there is a capability

However, Musharraf's decision to go ahead with his trip was itself interpreted as a sign that conditions had eased. Still, the Indian army says fighters continue to penetrate from Pakistani-held areas.

India estimates that there are between 3,500 and 4,000 militants in Jammu and Kashmir, fighting either for independence or union with Pakistan. Approximately the same number are waiting in Pakistan-held areas to enter India, New Delhi says. Roughly one-third of the disputed territory of Kashmir is under Pakistani control.

The heaviest infiltration is normally across a 1972 cease-fire line that divides India and Pakistan, called the Line of Control. India oftenaccuses Pakistani forces of opening fire as cover for infiltrators.

Pakistani shelling about 20 miles west of the border city of Jammu killed at least two civilians and injured three Monday, Indian police reported. Mortar fire injured an Indian soldier north of Jammu. Pakistan said Indian fire had forced thousands of civilians to flee.

Rumsfeld is likely to press India to withdraw at least some of its troops from the front lines so that Pakistan can concentrate forces on its western border with Afghanistan, where they are assisting the U.S.-led hunt for Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters.

But Indian officials have said they aren't likely to pull back soldiers in significant numbers until planned elections are held in Jammu and Kashmir in October.

The vote is central to Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's attempt to neutralize the rebellion in Jammu and Kashmir, which has cost at least 33,000 lives in the last 13 years. Some Kashmiri activists put the number of dead or missing as high as 80,000.

India's arrest of firebrand Kashmiri separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani and his son-in-law on Sunday is seen as part of that same plan. Geelani is a former head of the loose alliance of Kashmiri groups called the All Party Hurriyat (Freedom) Conference.

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