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Asia: India-Pakistan Tensions Ease Ahead Of Rumsfeld's Arrival In Region

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is traveling to New Delhi today in an attempt to defuse tensions between India and Pakistan over Kashmir. Rumsfeld plans to meet Indian officials tomorrow and then travel to Islamabad for talks on Thursday. RFE/RL reports that tensions already appear to have eased during the past week, a period in which Washington has put more pressure on Islamabad to halt cross-border attacks into Kashmir by Pakistan-based Islamic militants.

Prague, 11 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's talks tomorrow with Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee come amidst signs of easing tensions between New Delhi and Islamabad over the disputed region of Kashmir.

The easing of tensions first became apparent during the weekend in the form of more cordial diplomatic language expressed by each side after U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage visited both Pakistan and India.

Shelling by both sides continues across the Line of Control that divides Kashmir between India and Pakistan. But there have been clear steps toward de-escalating the military standoff between the two nuclear-capable countries.

The Indian Navy announced today that it is withdrawing five of its warships from positions in the northern Arabian Sea that are within striking range of Pakistan.

Those warships had been positioned to block Pakistan's major port city of Karachi in case of all-out war. Indian Navy Commander Rahul Gupta said the warships have been ordered back to their bases and that the withdrawal will be completed within days.

Yesterday, New Delhi announced it will lift a ban against Pakistani planes flying through Indian airspace in order to reach a third country.

Indian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Nirupama Rao told reporters yesterday that the decision to lift the ban follows evidence that there have been fewer infiltrations into Indian-administered Kashmir since Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf recently renewed his commitment to put an end to cross-border terrorism.

"There has been a certain announcement made by the government of Pakistan in recent days about putting a permanent end to infiltration and cross-border terrorism. Obviously our response to these measures will be sequenced. There is a menu of options available to the government. The announcement [allowing Pakistani flights within Indian airspace] should be seen as an indication of our continued monitoring of the situation and our desire for peace, because to peace there is no alternative," Rao said.

Nevertheless, senior officials from Washington and London have been careful to point out that the dispute over Kashmir is far from over. Among them is British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, who welcomed the decreased number of incursions into Kashmir, as well as India's decision to lift the ban on Pakistani flights across Indian airspace. "We have therefore seen both sides take first steps in the right direction, but the position is still precarious. Terrorism is still a threat and the situation will continue to require the engagement of the international community for some time to come," Straw said.

Armitage said after his visit last week to the region that Islamabad continues to demand negotiations with New Delhi on the status of mostly Muslim Kashmir, a proposal that India continues to reject. "The president [of Pakistan, General Pervez] Musharraf, was quite categorical about the fact that the activities across the Line of Control [in divided Kashmir] would be stopped permanently. And he is quite keen, President Musharraf, to enter into a dialogue on the whole question of Kashmir," Armitage said.

Musharraf reiterated his demand for negotiations today in his response to India's steps on de-escalation. Musharraf said India's moves represent "a very small beginning" and that more action is needed.

Musharraf today also welcomed Rumsfeld's visit to the Asian subcontinent, saying that Islamabad will do its best to cooperate with the United States to bring about peace. Critically, Musharraf praised what he called "a balanced approach" by Washington on the Kashmir issue.

In fact, Western analysts suggest that Washington has been gradually shifting its position away from a stance that initially had favored Pakistan in the months following the 11 September terrorist attacks in the United States.

The new position was stated clearly a week ago by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell after he told Musharraf that Islamabad must end all infiltrations by Pakistan-based Islamic militants into Indian-administered Kashmir. "With respect to India and Pakistan, it's a situation that continues to concern us deeply. I spoke to President Musharraf over the weekend, once again encouraging him to do everything to restrain all activity -- to end all activity across the Line of Control [in Kashmir]. And when that takes place in a way that is obvious and demonstrable to all, then we would call upon India to take de-escalatory steps so we can start moving in the other direction," Powell said.

Jonathan Stevenson, a researcher on terrorism for the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, told RFE/RL that the easing of tensions during the past week does appear to be linked to the more balanced position that Washington is now taking. "It does seem as though the mood music, particularly between Washington and [New] Delhi, has improved. There is some suggestion that the necessary favoritism that was shown by Washington toward Islamabad after 11 September is being more moderated now," Stevenson said.

Stevenson said this "necessary favoritism" toward Islamabad was a result of Washington's need for Pakistan's support in the Afghan antiterrorism campaign. But he noted that relations now appear to be improving between Washington and India. "There is this ongoing military cooperation between the United States and [New] Delhi. The U.S. has authorized the sale of a radar system to India made by Raytheon, all of which reinforces the notion that the U.S., although it did have to turn Pakistan's way for operational reasons in Afghanistan, still regards India as the more reliable partner in the region in the long term," Stevenson said.

Analysts say Rumsfeld must walk a narrow path now in which he doesn't appear to favor either India or Pakistan in the dispute.

General Hameed Gul, the former chief of Pakistan's ISI intelligence service who now heads Pakistan's Unity Party, is among those in Islamabad who warn of dangers ahead if Musharraf fails to reach a final resolution with India over Kashmir. In comments made yesterday, he said: "I think Pakistan could be destabilized as a result of it because Kashmir is a very sensitive issue and unless there is a road map given very soon about how the Kashmiris are going to be given their democratic right to determine their future, I think we are going to run into lots of difficulties."

Ahmed Rashid, the noted author of the books "Taliban" and "Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia," said it is no longer enough for Washington to send officials like Powell and Rumsfeld to the subcontinent as shuttle diplomats.

Rashid said it will now take direct intervention by U.S. President George W. Bush -- not his aides -- to resolve the Kashmir conflict. He says Bush must either call the Indian and Pakistani leaders to Washington, meet with them in a neutral third country, or travel to the subcontinent himself.