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South Asia: Despite Ongoing Kashmir Dispute, Hopes Rise For Defusing War Between India, Pakistan

Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee has raised hopes that an all-out war with Pakistan can be avoided. Vajpayee says diplomatic efforts aimed at resolving a military standoff with Pakistan are moving forward. But New Delhi still refuses to negotiate on the issue at the heart of the dispute -- control of the divided province of Kashmir.

Prague, 29 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Pakistani and Indian troops again exchanged machine-gun fire today along several parts of the boundary in the disputed province of Kashmir.

The clashes signal that tensions remain high between the two countries, despite Indian Prime Minister Vajpayee's remarks yesterday that diplomatic efforts are moving forward in an attempt to prevent an all-out war over Kashmir.

India and Pakistan have deployed about 1 million soldiers along their common borders since a suicide bomb attack on the Indian parliament killed 14 people on 13 December. New Delhi blames that attack on Pakistan-based Muslim militant groups that are fighting against Indian rule in Kashmir.

India says it will not withdraw the troops from its borders until Pakistan first ends its support for Islamic militants.

Islamabad denies it has sponsored any terrorists. Pakistan's military ruler, President Pervez Musharraf, has pledged a crackdown on terrorists and already has taken steps to ban several of the militant groups accused by India.

Gary Samore, an analyst on Indian and Pakistani affairs for the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, told RFE/RL today that he thinks there has indeed been progress on the diplomatic front.

"In terms of avoiding a war, I think there has been substantial progress. The Indians never wanted to find themselves engaged in a major war with Pakistan," Samore said. "I think they were thinking about the possibility of limited military attacks -- possibly against what they considered to be terrorist camps in the part of Kashmir that is occupied by Pakistan."

Samore described India's military deployments as part of a larger diplomatic strategy aimed at pressuring Islamabad into taking action against Muslim militants that are fighting against Indian rule in Kashmir.

"All along, India's strategy was to try to develop diplomatic pressure on President Musharraf of Pakistan to crack down and to end Pakistani support for the Kashmiri uprising -- which I think is beginning to pay off," Samore said. "I think President Musharraf is in fact beginning to take steps. And that is reducing the risk that the Indians will engage in any limited military attack."

Prime Minister Vajpayee said yesterday that there will not be a war between India and Pakistan. He also said that "all issues" between the two countries will be resolved peacefully. But Vajpayee is still rejecting Pakistan's calls for negotiations on the issue of Kashmir.

Speaking in an interview yesterday with the Press Trust of India, Vajpayee said that Pakistan is illegally occupying one-third of Kashmir. He said there will not be talks with Islamabad about Kashmir until Pakistan first returns control of that part of the province to India.

Pakistan responded today by proposing talks with India on a "mutual and phased withdrawal" of troops along their common borders. Islamabad wants those withdrawals to be followed by negotiations on Kashmir and other issues.

A statement by the Foreign Ministry in Islamabad today said Pakistan also is willing to restore the road, air, and rail links that were cut after December's attack on the Indian parliament.

Samore said he thinks the best the two sides can achieve at the moment is to avert their third war over Kashmir since independence from British colonial rule a half-century ago. He said he does not expect either side to change their competing claims over who should control Muslim-dominated Kashmir.

"I don't think there's any movement on either side on [the issue of] Kashmir. It seems to me they have irreconcilable positions, which they've had for 50 years. The best you could hope for is steps that will reduce the risk that Kashmir could spark [yet another] war between India and Pakistan," Samore said. "But I wouldn't expect to see any progress in terms of the two sides resolving their fundamental differences on the issue."

That view is shared by C. Raja Mohan, the strategic affairs editor of the Press Trust of India. In an interview with Reuters, Mohan said New Delhi's strategy remains the same -- to use coercive diplomacy and troop deployments along the border to pressure Pakistan into putting a stop to cross-border terrorism.

Mohan said he expects India will not withdraw its troops from the border until Islamabad hands over 20 men that New Delhi alleges are terrorists being sheltered by Pakistan. He said New Delhi also wants to see evidence that Islamic militants have stopped crossing illegally into Indian Kashmir.

Pakistani officials today are criticizing Indian police who say they killed two Pakistani men yesterday who were involved in a January attack on a U.S. office in Calcutta.

Syed Anwar Mahmood, a government spokesman in Islamabad, says New Delhi continues to blame Pakistan for any act of terrorism in India. Mahmood said the leadership in New Delhi should, instead, look within India for answers about terrorist attacks.