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India/Pakistan: Blair Arrives In Islamabad, But Skirmishes Continue

  • Eugen Tomiuc

British Prime Minister Tony Blair is continuing his diplomatic push to cool military tensions between South Asian nuclear rivals India and Pakistan. Blair yesterday held talks with Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and is scheduled to meet with Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf later today in Islamabad. During his four-day visit to India, Blair pushed a two-stage process for de-escalating the crisis. But tensions remain high.

Prague, 7 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Britain's prime minister, Tony Blair, arrived today in Islamabad from New Delhi on the second stage of a U.S.-backed diplomatic mission to appease the military standoff between India and Pakistan.

Blair is scheduled to hold talks later today with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf in a bid to defuse the crisis amid renewed exchanges of fire between Indian and Pakistani forces along the common border.

Blair's visit to Pakistan comes after a four-day trip to India during which he outlined a two-stage diplomatic plan involving a complete rejection of terrorism by both sides, followed by political dialogue. The carefully elaborated formula caters both to India's demands that Pakistan crack down on Islamic militants and to Islamabad's call for a resumption of bilateral talks.

The current crisis in relations between India and Pakistan was triggered by a 13 December attack on the Indian parliament that left 14 people dead. India blames the attack on two Pakistan-based Muslim militant groups fighting forces in the Indian-ruled section of the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir. It launched a huge military buildup on the border -- the biggest in 15 years -- and demanded that Pakistan end what New Delhi called "cross-border terrorism."

Pakistan, in response, also massed troops in the region. Since then, there have been almost daily exchanges of fire between the two sides.

Blair, speaking yesterday in New Delhi, condemned the attack on India's parliament. But he said after talks with Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee that differences between the two South Asian nuclear rivals must be resolved through negotiations and not through military means.

"I think it is important that we do everything that possibly can be done in order to make sure that whatever disputes there are can be resolved peacefully, democratically, without resort to violence," the British prime minister said.

Blair and Vajpayee also signed a joint declaration condemning all those who support and finance terrorist activities.

But Blair, aware of the complex rivalries in the region, refrained from more detailed public statements, saying only that it is up to India and Pakistan to decide how to move forward.

A quick thawing in Indian-Pakistani relations appears unlikely, although Vajpayee and Musharraf yesterday shook hands -- for the second time -- during the two-day South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit in Nepal. Musharraf, at the end of the summit, called for dialogue with India, but Vajpayee later said no immediate, direct talks between the two leaders are planned.

India's Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh today also ruled out any immediate prospect of dialogue with Islamabad, saying Pakistan has shown no sign of changing its stance toward terrorism.

Singh's statement came despite Pakistan's recent crackdown against activists belonging to the two guerrilla groups -- Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Tayyaba -- which India specifically blames for December's parliament attack.

In the latest sweep in the eastern Punjabi province, Pakistani security forces overnight arrested 42 Muslim militants, bringing the total number of arrests to more than 300.

But Singh today said Pakistan should do more and accused Islamabad of what it called double standards in how it is addressing international terrorism and the activities of Muslim militant groups in Kashmir.

Singh described the current state of relations with Pakistan as "tense" and "far from satisfactory" and said the situation can only be improved by Islamabad's rejection of terrorism in all its forms.

Blair is also expected to press Pakistan to intensify its efforts to rein in Kashmiri militants. However, Blair today highlighted both India's and Pakistan's support for the U.S.-led coalition against terrorism. Blair, speaking at a news conference in Islamabad, said the support of the two countries has been of "immense importance."

"The support of Pakistan and of India for the international coalition against terrorism has been of importance, immense importance, and the stability of this region, its importance for the region and for the wider world, barely needs stating, really," Blair said.

Blair's trip to the region is the latest in a series of high-profile missions for the British leader, which have seen him playing an increasing role in shoring up international support for the U.S.-led campaign against terrorism in Afghanistan.

The United States has been walking a fine line between the two South Asian rivals, since it needs Pakistan's support in its Afghan campaign. Top U.S. officials are expected to decide this week whether to send a special envoy to the region in the hope of preventing any further escalation of tensions.

Underlining Washington's close involvement in Blair's diplomatic mission to the region, a British spokesman today said the prime minister held a 15-minute telephone conversation with U.S. President George W. Bush. He added that the U.S. stance on the India-Pakistan dispute is similar to Britain's.

India and Pakistan have fought three wars since gaining independence from Britain in 1947, two of them over Kashmir.

Islamabad has welcomed the prospect of U.S. involvement in the current crisis, but India -- which has always been wary of third-party mediation in its conflicts with Pakistan -- has so far rejected the idea.

Blair's diplomatic efforts come amid renewed exchanges of fire between Indian and Pakistani troops along the border. Police in Pakistani-controlled Kashmir say Indian forces this morning opened fire with artillery and small arms in Rawalakot district.

Reports also say the two sides exchanged intermittent machine-gun and rifle fire overnight near the Pakistani town of Sialkot in Punjab province.

An unnamed senior Indian defense official reportedly said that one Indian and five Pakistani soldiers were killed today in the exchanges. The figure cannot be independently confirmed. Pakistan says more than 20 people have been killed and some 40 wounded on its side of the border since the latest crisis erupted.

Separately, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres arrived in India today for a three-day visit likely to highlight a common approach to security in the face of attacks on both countries by Islamic militants.