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India/Pakistan: Vajpayee, Musharraf Due To Meet, But Prospects For Peace Still Shaky

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee are due to meet face-to-face tomorrow, as a long-delayed summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) opens in the Nepalese capital, Kathmandu. Although the Indian government says there will be no private talks between the two leaders, many are hoping their mere presence together can somehow cool escalating tensions between the two countries. But yesterday's grenade attack near the state legislature building in Indian-administered Kashmir puts peacemaking efforts in doubt.

Prague, 3 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- "War is not the only option. All efforts will be made to avert war. Efforts are being made, and if diplomatic measures bring forth a solution, then there is no need for any other alternative."

That was Indian Prime Minister Vajpayee's latest declaration today, as he prepared to board a flight to Kathmandu on the eve of the SAARC summit.

For world leaders doing their utmost to prevent a looming conflict between India and Pakistan, those words must have come as some comfort. But Vajpayee was quick to rule out the possibility of face-to-face talks with his adversary, Pakistani President Musharraf, at the Kathmandu summit. And he added that Pakistan has so far not shown it is willing to go far enough to stop militant Islamic groups that India blames for terrorist acts, including a deadly assault in December on the parliament in New Delhi.

Yesterday's grenade attack near the state legislature building in Indian-administered Kashmir appeared to underscore Vajpayee's words. An Indian police officer and a civilian were killed when two grenades exploded in Srinagar, near the spot where some 40 people perished in a suicide attack in October. Vajpayee suggested today that Pakistan's military government was linked to yesterday's attack. Vajpayee said Pakistan cannot "fight terrorism in Afghanistan and spread it in Kashmir."

With both sides continuing to mass hundreds of thousands of soldiers on their common border, and with the possibility of face-to-face talks being excluded a priori, what are the chances that the SAARC summit can bring Pakistan and India back from the brink of war?

The mediation of outside governments may offer the best chance at averting conflict. India and Pakistan have already fought two wars over Kashmir and engaged in numerous smaller battles over the years. The level of rhetoric in this latest conflict has escalated so rapidly that it makes it nearly impossible for either side to climb down.

The problem is that both states see part of their legitimacy as intertwined with the Kashmir issue.

The dispute over Kashmir is as old as Britain's partition of colonial India into a predominantly Hindu Indian state and a predominantly Muslim Pakistani nation in 1947. At the time, Britain allocated the mostly Muslim territory to India, a move which Pakistan said ran counter to the wishes of local people. Conflict soon ensued, and since then, the border between India and Pakistan has shifted frequently in Kashmir across a line of control altered with each successive skirmish.

India continues to lay claim to Kashmir, staking its reputation as the world's largest multi-ethnic and multi-faith democracy on the retention of this and other minority territories.

Pakistan, since its founding as an Islamic state, has campaigned for Kashmir to be a part of it, to fulfill the prophecy of its founding father, Mohammad Ali Jinnah. Jinnah said all Hindus belong in India and all Muslims in Pakistan. Kashmir, according to Jinnah, was "part of the unfinished business of the partition in India in 1947."

The fact that, for the first time, both India and Pakistan are declared nuclear powers and that Islamabad, in particular, is playing a key role in the U.S.-led campaign to restore stability in Afghanistan, makes efforts to avoid a confrontation especially urgent. But SAARC countries may not play a key role in this endeavor.

Pakistani President Musharraf is consulting with Chinese leaders in Beijing today for the second time in as many weeks. China has called on both sides to exercise maximum restraint, as has the United States, which has also been involved in diplomatic moves to de-escalate tensions. British Prime Minister Tony Blair is on his way to the region and plans to hold separate talks in Kathmandu with both the Pakistani and Indian leaders.

On the front lines, preparations for war continue. In Athmuqam, in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, local commander Lieutenant Colonel Qamar told Reuters: "We have all calibers of weapons available to us, to give the appropriate response to India. That includes the small arms, heavy mortars, and the artillery also. We also have all kinds of equipment which can effectively engage and target Indian weapons. We will use all these weapons whenever there is a need to retaliate and give the appropriate response."

Just a few kilometers away, on the Indian side, a local farmer said civilians are helping the Indian army bolster defenses: "If there is any mischief, conflict, shelling, or war, our village is the first to be affected, from both the Indian, as well as the Pakistani, side. Therefore, only a few people have left. The others are helping the army in digging trenches and constructing bunkers. This is a good thing to do."

The Indian military reported today that 22 suspected Islamic militants, including several top field commanders, have been killed in separate encounters with Indian security forces.

So far, there appears to be little momentum for peace.