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South Asia: Putin And Jiang Seek Direct Talks Between India And Pakistan

  • Ron Synovitz

The leaders of India and Pakistan are expected to meet separately with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Jiang Zemin today and tomorrow on the sidelines of a 16-country Asian security summit in Kazakhstan. Russian officials say Putin will encourage face-to-face talks on Kashmir between Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf. But the Indian government has ruled out direct contact with any Pakistani officials on the sidelines of the summit, including meetings between lower-level advisers.

Prague, 3 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Hopes for a peaceful resolution to India and Pakistan's dispute over Kashmir are focusing on a 16-country Asian security summit hosted this week by Kazakhstan.

The presidents of Russia and China have said they hope to use the Almaty conference to mediate between Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf.

Both Vajpayee and Musharraf are now in Almaty to attend the summit. Musharraf said yesterday during a visit to the Tajik capital of Dushanbe that he would welcome direct talks with Vajpayee on the Kashmir dispute. He also said that he had told Tajikistan's President Imomali Rakhmonov that Pakistan will not start a war with India over Kashmir.

"I assured President [Rakhmonov] that Pakistan is against war. We are for peace. We support solving the conflict [over Kashmir] through peaceful methods. We are for a reduction in tension. I then repeated to the president that Pakistan will not be the one to initiate war," Musharraf said.

But Indian officials say they already have been fighting a "proxy war" in Kashmir for the last 12 years against Islamic militants whom New Delhi alleges are sponsored by Pakistan's military and intelligence services.

Vajpayee said he will refuse to conduct any face-to-face talks with Musharraf until Pakistan first takes action to stop cross-border incursions into Kashmir by the militants.

A direct meeting between Vajpayee and Musharraf on the Kashmir dispute is seen in international circles as a significant step toward easing the war footing of the two nuclear-capable rivals.

But analysts note that the start of such talks also would represent a significant achievement for Musharraf. Islamabad has tried for years to force India to the negotiating table over the mostly Muslim region of Kashmir.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said last week that there is no doubt Islamabad has, in the past, supported incursions by Islamic militants across the Line of Control that divides Kashmir between Pakistan and India.

Aqil Shah, a Pakistan-based analyst for the International Crisis Group, said New Delhi is irritated by suggestions that Pakistan should be granted a key policy goal on Kashmir. India says such a move would represent a reward to Islamabad for "supporting terrorism."

Pakistan's policy goal -- the elevation of the Kashmir debate to the level of internationally brokered negotiations -- is something that Islamabad was unable to achieve through two earlier wars against India over Kashmir.

In fact, New Delhi has consistently refused during the last four decades to negotiate the status of the land in Kashmir that was seized by its armed forces during the wars of 1948 and 1965.

It is against this background that Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Jiang Zemin have announced their own separate meetings with Musharraf and Vajpayee.

The plenary session of the Almaty summit -- known as the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia -- is scheduled to start tomorrow.

But Vajpayee arrived in Almaty yesterday and already has met with Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev on the issue of cross-border terrorism.

Speaking after talks with Nazarbaev today, Vajpayee said India has received support and understanding from Kazakhstan on the Kashmir dispute. "We are very grateful [for] Kazakhstan's support of India's wish for a permanent place on the Security Council of the United Nations. We are also grateful for the understanding of our position and policy toward the tension which was created by the terrorism," Vajpayee said.

For his part, Nazarbaev said he hopes the conference will result in a new economic and political pact, as well as a joint declaration against terrorism. "We are making preparations for the signing of the main document, the Almaty Act, which identifies the goals and the mechanism for cooperation and credibility. Also, a declaration on fighting terrorism will be adopted," Nazarbaev said.

But with Pakistan still insisting that the Islamic militants in Kashmir are "freedom fighters" rather than "terrorists," Nazarbaev said that it may be difficult to get all 16 countries at the summit to agree on an antiterrorism declaration. "It was not easy to come to an agreement on such a document because there are many problems in Asia. But the fact that these states are here, and the fact that we have nine observer states, proves there is huge interest. We are grateful to everybody for coming to Almaty to discuss such important issues in which we have a common interest," Nazarbaev said.

Indian Defense Minister George Fernandes lowered international expectations for talks on the Kashmir issue even further yesterday by announcing that New Delhi has ruled out any direct contact between Pakistani and Indian officials at Almaty, including meetings between lower-level officials.

India's refusal to conduct direct talks of any kind with Pakistan in Almaty has left expectations for a breakthrough so low that Putin and Jiang are likely to claim success regardless of the outcome of their shuttle diplomacy. That's because even indirect communication between India and Pakistan on the Kashmir conflict is now seen as a step, however small, toward peace.