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South Asia: Mediation Seen Possible In Kashmir Dispute

India and Pakistan are still poised to go to war, but tensions appear to be waning after dogged international diplomatic efforts and an announced crackdown on extremists by Pakistan. And as our correspondent Jeffrey Donovan reports, the menacing clouds over South Asia may actually have a silver lining.

Washington, 18 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Tensions remain high in the military standoff between India and Pakistan, but at least one major dispute over Kashmir appears to have been positively affected by the crisis -- the issue of third-party mediation.

Although Pakistan has in the past welcomed mediation in the conflict, which has raged on and off since the countries achieved independence from Britain in 1947, New Delhi has rejected it, insisting outsiders stay out of the bitter row over the Himalayan region. The countries have already fought three wars. And now, they both possess nuclear weapons.

But in recent weeks, as the rivals approached the brink of a new war -- this time after India accused Islamabad of backing terrorism -- the U.S. and international community helped pressure President Pervez Musharraf to rein in extremists. The result -- an announced crackdown by Musharraf and the arrest of 1,900 extremists -- has been widely praised by officials around the world, including India.

One hope, analysts tell RFE/RL, is that India's acceptance of international mediation and pressure on the issue of terrorism will force New Delhi to recognize that such mediation must guide efforts to achieve lasting peace with Pakistan over Kashmir. India has so far not publicly commented on the question of future mediation.

Huma Malik is an analyst and expert on Kashmir and conflict resolution at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. She made this observation: "Now, terrorism has been addressed. And, the fact that India has allowed the U.S. and the international community to put pressure on Musharraf has sort of opened the doors for mediation; they allowed mediation to take place on one issue, which was terrorism. So it's going to be very difficult for India to now step back and not allow mediation on Kashmir or for peace in the region."

Washington is eager to keep peace when it is waging a war in nearby Afghanistan. It has made dogged diplomatic efforts to defuse tensions raised by India's accusation that its Muslim neighbor Pakistan backs terrorists in Kashmir as well as those who killed a dozen people in an attack on New Delhi's parliament on 13 December. Pakistan denies that it supports terrorists.

But that attack by suicide bombers prompted war cries from India -- and the amassing of hundreds of thousands of troops by both nations at their borders. Defense Minister George Fernandes of India told a Pentagon briefing on 17 January that the attack was meant to annihilate the country's political landscape.

"That attack was not on the structure of the parliament house alone. That attack, we have absolutely no doubt whatsoever, was designed to eliminate the entire political leadership of the country -- whether of the ruling coalition or of the opposition. And it is luck or providence, I believe, that saved us."

Since then, Secretary of State Colin Powell has made regular telephone calls to leaders in both countries, which he visited this week in a bid to continue to cool tempers. Indian officials have also visited Washington, including Fernandes yesterday and Home Minister L.K. Advani last week.

Powell on 16 January invited Musharraf, who has been a pivotal ally in the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, to Washington "in the very near future." It would be Musharraf's first trip to the U.S. capital since taking power in a bloodless coup in 1999.

Powell outlined the American approach to the Kashmir problem at a news conference in New Delhi on 17 January: "The question of Kashmir has to be resolved by direct dialogue between the two parties. To the extent that we [the U.S.] can help bring that dialogue about, and to the extent that both sides ask us to assist them as they go through the dialogue, the United States is always ready to assist its two friends."

International diplomacy and pressure, coupled with Musharraf's actions, appears to have affected some change in Indian attitudes, even if some military officials continue to talk of waging war.

After returning from Washington, Indian Home Minister Advani, known as a hawk, went so far as to call Musharraf's measures "path-breaking." And Fernandes said yesterday he had hope that terrorism over mostly Muslim Kashmir -- which is divided between Pakistan, India, and China -- could one day end: "Against the backdrop of the recent developments, I have reasons to believe that sooner or later, these issues will now be on the way to resolution."

Analyst Malik says she believes that Musharraf's measures are indeed ground-breaking and that he was already seeking to diminish the influence of Islamists and extremists in Pakistan before the September attacks on America. Those attacks, she says, have actually helped Musharraf overcome internal resistance to his "cleaning up."

Malik doesn't think there will be war over Kashmir now. But she says that since past agreements between India and Pakistan have never led to lasting peace, it is key that mediation -- regardless of who is doing it -- be accepted as the basis for proceeding toward a genuine solution on Kashmir.

The ball, however, now appears to be in India's court. And it remains to be seen whether India will ultimately be satisfied with Musharraf's steps -- or accept mediation in a dispute that has raged for half a century.