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Asia: Powell Says U.S Committed On Kashmir, Calls For Confidence-Building Steps

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell has reiterated Washington's commitment to stay diplomatically engaged with Pakistan and India until a resolution is reached in their dispute over Kashmir. Speaking yesterday in Islamabad, Powell called for confidence-building measures from both Pakistan and India, including independently monitored elections within Kashmir and an end to cross-border infiltrations by Islamic militants.

Prague, 29 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- During his weekend visit to the Asian subcontinent, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell raised a series of new demands for India to take "de-escalatory steps" in its dispute with Pakistan over the divided region of Kashmir.

However, Powell's talks with officials in both New Delhi and Islamabad were not one-sided in favor of Pakistan's position on the dispute. Powell also refused to recognize a claim by Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf that Islamabad has brought an end to incursions into Indian-administered Kashmir by Islamic militants.

Speaking in Islamabad yesterday, Powell welcomed a pledge he received from Indian officials that New Delhi would soon conduct free and fair elections within Indian-administered Kashmir.

But Powell also echoed the view expressed by the European Union's foreign-policy and security chief, Javier Solana, when he visited the subcontinent last week, i.e., that the elections promised for Indian Kashmir cannot, by themselves, resolve the 54-year-old dispute. "Elections alone cannot resolve the problems between India and Pakistan, nor can they erase the scars of so many years of strife. They can, however, be a first step in a broader process that begins to address Kashmiri grievances and leads India and Pakistan back to dialogue," Powell said.

Washington's freshly enunciated demands upon New Delhi included a call from Powell for India to allow independent observers into Kashmir to monitor the promised elections. Powell also suggested that India could build confidence in the election process by releasing Kashmiri political prisoners in order to allow them to participate either as voters or as potential candidates. "We look forward to concrete steps by India to foster Kashmiri confidence in the election process, permitting independent observers and allowing all parties to participate. And releasing from detention those who wish to be a part of that process would be helpful in this regard," Powell said.

Powell said tensions between India and Pakistan have eased significantly since U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage visited the subcontinent in June.

At that time, with more than 1 million soldiers amassed on their borders and both sides issuing harsh accusations against each other, Powell said that war between the two nuclear-capable countries had appeared possible. "Some weeks ago, the prospects of war between India and Pakistan were very real. Thanks to the efforts of the international community, but especially the efforts of the parties themselves, tensions have been reduced. Both sides have reaffirmed their desire for a peaceful political solution to the problems that exist. We must continue down this path, and the United States, I assure you, will travel this road with you," Powell said.

It was in early June that Powell first publicly called upon Pakistan to halt militant incursions into Kashmir as a step toward de-escalating the military standoff with India.

India has admitted that there has been some progress on the issue, and the Indian Navy has responded by recalling its warships from the Arabian Sea. But New Delhi estimates that the incursions have fallen only by about 30 percent since last month.

Officials in New Delhi told visiting British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw last week that they will not take further steps to ease tensions until Pakistan ends the incursions once and for all.

Indian Foreign Minister Yashwant Sinha publicly rebuffed Powell for trying to push for a dialogue on Kashmir after militant attacks in the past two weeks that have killed more than 30 Kashmiri Hindus.

Sinha told Powell that incursions by Islamic militants who are fighting New Delhi's rule in Kashmir are continuing. Both Straw and Solana confirmed this during their recent visits to the subcontinent.

Sinha said that until all incursions end, India will continue to reject any call for negotiations on Kashmir. "India has always held that if the necessary conditions for talks are created, we will have talks. But we do not think the necessary conditions exist at present," Sinha said.

Sinha's remarks brought an angry response yesterday from Pakistani President Musharraf. For his part, the Pakistani leader continues to insist that Islamabad has already halted all incursions by Islamic militants. "It [has] already [been] stopped in the past. And it is not taking place at all. And this is with all the conviction I am saying that. And whatever the Indian side is saying is absolutely baseless," Musharraf said.

Musharraf also reiterated Islamabad's key demand that India and Pakistan start a dialogue on all of the issues that are causing tensions between the two countries. "Our stand is very clear. We need to start a dialogue on Kashmir and all other issues. That what's we want to see," Musharraf said.

Powell did not confirm Musharraf's claim that Pakistan already has halted all incursions across the Line of Control that separates Kashmir between Indian and Pakistani rule. Instead, Powell referred to the issue as a "commitment" that Islamabad still needs to act upon. "The United States views Pakistan's assurances that it would permanently cease infiltration activity across the Line of Control as an important commitment. We also look to India to take further de-escalatory actions as Pakistan makes good on its pledges. It's time to make regional stability permanent," Powell said.

Significantly, Powell yesterday signaled Washington's view that the Kashmir dispute has become internationalized and that negotiations are the only way the dispute can be resolved once and for all. "Kashmir is on the international agenda. The United States will extend a helping hand to all sides so that they can achieve a more peaceful, less divisive future. The problems of Kashmir cannot be resolved through violence, but only through a healthy political process and only through dialogue between the parties," Powell said.

For now, the idea of dialogue on Kashmir is not the only suggestion from Washington that India is refusing to accept.

Indian officials also are rejecting the idea of independent election monitors in Kashmir, although a government spokesman in New Delhi said that foreigners with valid visas would be permitted to visit Jammu and Kashmir on an informal basis.

New Delhi also has rejected Powell's suggestion that Kashmiri political prisoners be released in order to participate in elections there.