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South Asia: Rumsfeld Will Head To Region In Bid To Calm Tensions

Fresh from his tour of Europe and Russia, U.S. President George W. Bush is now focusing his attention on growing tensions in South Asia, where India and Pakistan are poised on the brink of war.

Washington, 31 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. President George W. Bush is sending Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to South Asia next week in a bid to prevent nuclear rivals India and Pakistan from going to war.

Troops from both countries have been exchanging sporadic fire across the military Line of Control that divides Kashmir since Islamic militants killed 30 people on 14 May in an attack on the Indian side of the contested Himalayan state. New Delhi says the militants are backed by Pakistan, which denies the charge.

Both countries have amassed more than a million troops on their borders since an attack by militants on India's parliament last December. Analysts fear the latest rise in tension could spark a conventional or even a nuclear conflict, as well as undermine the American-led war on terrorism in neighboring Afghanistan.

In his first public remarks since returning from a week-long trip to Europe and Russia, Bush told reporters in Washington on 30 May that he will send Rumsfeld to the region in a bid to get both sides to back down.

"We are making it very clear to both Pakistan and India that war will not serve their interests, and we are a part of an international coalition applying pressure to both parties, particularly to [Pakistani] President [Pervez] Musharraf. He must stop the incursions across the Line of Control," Bush said.

India blames Musharraf for not living up to past pledges to clamp down on militants. Leaders in both countries say they are willing to defend their countries but do not want to go to war.

Musharraf said yesterday he may rush troops patrolling the Afghan border to Pakistan's frontier with India, a move that could ease pressure on Al-Qaeda or Taliban members seeking to flee into Pakistan, as some are believed to have already done.

Bush acknowledged that terrorists in Afghanistan may try to exploit the current tensions, but vowed they would never elude Washington. He said, "We're doing everything we can to continue to shore up efforts on the Pakistani-Afghan border."

Bush also said that Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin Powell are looking at plans for protecting Americans living in the region "if need be."

More than 60,000 Americans live in Pakistan and India. The daily "USA Today" reported yesterday that U.S. officials are making emergency plans to evacuate them, as well as 1,100 U.S. servicemen in Pakistan.

At a Pentagon briefing, Rumsfeld would not be drawn out by questions about those plans or what he would tell officials in both countries, citing the extremely sensitive nature of the standoff. But he did say U.S. officials had given a lot of thought to what a nuclear war would do to both Pakistan and India, and would share this information with their leaders.

"It seems to me that what you have is two countries, each of which has a great many conventional forces and nuclear power, as well. And it's in their interests, as much as anybody's -- it's the millions and millions and millions of people who live in those two countries who would be damaged by a conflict," Rumsfeld said.

Indian Defense Minister George Fernandes this week accused Pakistan's intelligence service, the PSI, of planning a major terrorist attack in India. He said on 28 May in New Delhi that nonmilitary options for dealing with the crisis are fading. "Naturally, options will become fewer and fewer. But which option will finally prevail is something I cannot comment on at this point of time," Fernandes said.

It remains unclear which country Rumsfeld will visit first, or when. But his efforts are set to be bolstered by Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, who is scheduled to meet with officials in both countries next on 6-7 June.

Their trips follow others by Western diplomats to South Asia. British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw ended his own peace mission on 29 May after visiting Islamabad and New Delhi.

Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin is expected to meet separately next week with Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and Pakistan's Musharraf on the sidelines of a conference on regional security issues in Kazakhstan.

Last week, while hosting Bush in St. Petersburg, Putin offered to lead trilateral talks with India and Pakistan during the 3-5 June conference in Almaty. But Indian officials reacted coldly to the invitation, saying they are far from being ready to meet with Musharraf and that Putin had grossly misread the mood in New Delhi.